Movie Review Illustration

(Eleanor Klock/Emerald)

With a budget of $4-6 million (a vast disparity from the $100 million that major movies end up costing on average), the film that was supposed to be a blip on the movie industry radar has now been nominated for over 100 awards and has received almost universal praise from critics.

Director Chloe Zhao walked away with a Golden Globe for best director, becoming only the second woman ever to win and the first Asian woman to win the award. The movie also managed to win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama.

The film, based off the 2017 book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder, tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who finds herself unemployed in the wake of the Great Recession.

Fern decides to sell her things and travel the country in her van, Vanguard, searching for work and fellow travelers. When she meets Bob Wells, the organizer of a desert rendezvous in Arizona not unlike a Burning Man for old people, she learns the tricks and trade of the nomad lifestyle.

In her travels she comes across tragic and heartbreaking stories of loss, poverty, regret and despair. And yet, the people that she meets are also hopeful in the way only those who are truly free and independent can be, always looking for the next adventure or a shred of meaning and contentment in the rat race of life.

What makes the movie so impactful is hidden in the details; many of the nomads, unbeknownst to most moviegoers, are actually real people playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, three of the movie's biggest characters, are all real-life nomads and much of the characters’ backstories are their own.

In many of the scenes involving the three characters based on themselves, something just felt off, and the disbelief that movies usually suspend, making them feel real, was broken by the fact that the characters playing themselves weren’t professional actors.

In scenes with family, the characters seem at home. In scenes where characters are well traveled, they seem like they know the land. And in scenes with other nomads, they seem like part of the community. That’s because in these scenes, they are.

Low-level acting skills in low-budget productions are usually a recipe for disaster, but “Nomadland” finds a way to turn it into something special. This documentary/movie hybrid lends itself to an emotional punch that can’t be found in most productions.

The movie has hints of Mickey Rourke's “The Wrestler” and Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project.” It isn’t a high-stakes drama about someone becoming rich and famous, traveling in time or saving the world. It’s a movie about normal people, poor people, doing what they can to survive and thrive in a world designed to have them fail.

Watching Fern travel the country and work in an Amazon packing plants or in national parks as a groundskeeper isn’t supposed to be exciting, and it’s not. It’s a slow paced, beautifully cinematically shot look at what the world is like for most people who are struggling to get by — a call for help for members of society who have been forgotten.