Nomadland: Between Fantasy and Fiction

In the early hours of Sunday morning, the Oscars ceremony took place, and it came as a surprise to absolutely no one that Nomadland won top prize. I realise I have been banging on about Nomadland for months now, but this week, I'm going into a little more detail about why I think it's so special.

Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman who, following the death of her husband and subsequent loss of their house, starts a new life in a modified van. She travels across America's west picking up seasonal work wherever she can and, after a few particularly lonely nights, finds herself in the desert where she meets a rag-tag community of modern nomads.

Much of Nomadland's beauty lies in its narrative simplicity. It is not a film of thrills and spills, but a picture of simple lives that hold deep complexities within them. The film adapts Jessica Bruder's vivid non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Though Fern's story is fictionalised, the rest of the film is populated by real-life people playing versions of their own stories. If you have seen director Zhao's previous works, The Rider and Songs My Brother's Taught Me, you'll know that this space between documentary and fiction is where she truly thrives. Zhao brings deeply authentic stories to screen and giving them show-stopping cinematic flair. It's a winning combination, and here, with a powerhouse performance from McDormand, the results are truly enchanting.

Nomadland struck a chord with me because of its themes and how I related to them through the current times we're living in. It's a very culturally specific film that criticises capitalism through real stories of older people who were left with nothing after the Great Recession, and in their retirement years, are forced to live hand-to-mouth doing strenuous manual labour. But within this, it deals with more universal themes that will be of relevance to many of us: loss of work, of independence, of loved ones, and how we manage to deal with those losses. It paints a triumphant portrait of the human spirit in the hardest of times. I watched it in the pits of the second lockdown, and though I know, my experiences of this pandemic have been easier than many others, I won't pretend it hasn't been hard or that there haven't been losses. In many ways, Nomadland helped me begin to heal.

Nomadland is showing from Monday 17 May, tickets are on sale now.

This article first featured in the Sheffield Telegraph on Thursday 29 April 2021.


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