Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ shows not all who wander are lost

The Best Picture frontrunner starring Frances McDormand streams on Hulu this weekend, and the buzz is well-deserved.

Brad Keefe

We’re less than a month away from Oscar nominations for one of the most abnormal years in the history of cinema.

In a normal year, these nominations usually lead to a bump in interest and extra box-office numbers for underseen nominated films. This year, one of the top expected Best Picture contenders comes to your home on Hulu after just a few weeks in theaters.

Writer-director Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” is a unique film among Oscar frontrunners, and its languid pace and human warmth make it a film for the moment.

Adapted from a nonfiction book on modern nomads, “Nomadland” tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman struggling financially after the mineral plant she worked at for years was shuttered.

To make ends meet, Fern takes a seasonal job at an Amazon distribution center while living out of her van, but as the winter gets colder, she accepts an invitation from a friend and co-worker to attend a gathering of nomads in the Arizona desert. She learns self-sufficiency and the basics of surviving life on the road while discovering a warm and welcoming culture.

Zhao’s pacing and plot match the wandering mood. Moments of sweet respite ebb and flow, particularly in a memorably gorgeous scene in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park that showcases the natural-light talents of cinematographer Joshua James Richards.

The struggles of the road and Fern’s economic hardships also hit like a brick. “Nomadland” is a deeply empathetic portrait of the downtrodden and forgotten, but it never judges.

Adding to the authenticity, Zhao cast several real-life nomads as fictionalized versions of themselves. At times the film feels almost like a documentary of this lifestyle.

But it all comes together with a superlative performance by McDormand, one of the generation's great actors in a role that does so much so quietly. The emotional connection and investment the audience has with Fern’s joys and struggles make for a film with a beating heart.

McDormand gets great support from a fellow traveler played by David Strathairn that leads to a moving third act.

“Nomadland” is a character study and a cultural glimpse at another side of economic struggle and freedom. Find out why it’s a Best Picture frontrunner this weekend.