Yesterday night, the 93rd Academy Awards were held in LA, in an understated, simpler ceremony than we are normally used to. It seems only right then, that the Best Picture winner isn’t a big, over-the-top production, but an uncomplicated film that captures the life of nomadic people in America. With director Chloe Zhao also snapping up a Best Director win (and being only the second woman in history to do so), we break down why Nomadland is so great, and why Zhao is one of our favourite directors working today.
With only three films under her belt (four if you count the unreleased Eternals, coming later this year), Zhao has already managed to create an incredibly distinct style. Her filmmaking centres around real-life characters, often using non-professional actors to play themselves. While this may seem like a risky move for some, Zhao has the ability to blend fiction and documentary effortlessly, letting the actors find a balance between their own stories and the ones created for the film.
While Nomadland also features non-professional actors, with real nomads playing themselves throughout the film, Frances McDormand takes the lead as Fern, a woman who decides to take on the nomadic lifestyle after losing her husband and job. We follow her on a journey across America, as she travels through deserts and snow in her van. On the way, she meets different people, each with their own stories and reasons for being on the road. McDormand is good in everything she does, but her performance as Fern might be one of her best. Able to portray the emotional depths of her character with one look on her face, she brings Fern to life in an understated way, making the audience feel and understand every aspect of her life and personality.
Instead of overly producing or forcing dramatic moments, Zhao captures life as we experience it. She lets the characters tell their own stories, and understands that everyone’s own individual lives are interesting and emotionally compelling enough as they are. On top of that, the decision to shoot everything in natural light (with help from the incredible cinematographer Joshua James Richards), allows the beauty of nature to shine in all its glory. Soundtracked with music from Ludovico Einaudi, the film transports you from one moment to another in beautiful ways.
All in all, Nomadland is a film that proves sometimes simplicity is best. While big blockbusters are fun, entertaining and right for particular stories, seeing life play out as we live it, shows us that beauty can be found in the every day, and that the people we meet all teach us a little bit about ourselves. In her Oscar speech, Zhao said she ‘always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world’, and watching her films, you feel a little bit more hopeful and a little bit lighter, and you simply never want them to end.
Catch Nomadland on the big screen when cinemas reopen in the UK on the 17th fo May. And while you wait, watch her other films on MUBI.