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TIFF 2020: Nomadland

An intimate slice-of-life film already generating Oscar buzz
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Zhao's new film is a poignant look into life as a modern nomad. COURTESY OF TIFF
Zhao's new film is a poignant look into life as a modern nomad. COURTESY OF TIFF

Earlier this month, director Chloé Zhao took home the Golden Lion — the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival — for her new film Nomadland, solidifying herself as a frontrunner come awards season.

The accolade is well-deserved with Zhao’s interdisciplinary approach to the production: writing, directing, and editing the film in full. This delicately crafted, slow-crawling character study is a melancholic look at sentiment and what it means to be human.

Nomadland centres around Frances McDormand as Fern, a middle-aged widow dealing with the repercussions of the Great Recession. The emotion surrounding the loss of her husband and home, along with the lack of a steady job motivates her to find something new. Packing her life into her van, Fern takes the road less travelled by becoming a modern-day nomad.

Veering from a traditional film structure, Nomadland is a movie without a plot. The story has no destination in mind, but rather approaches Fern’s situation with acute observations and lack of judgment.

In an exchange with an old neighbour, Fern establishes that she is in no need of saving. When asked if she is experiencing homelessness, Fern firmly states she is rather “houseless.” This distinction is highlighted throughout the film without undercutting the difficulties of her financial situation. Simply letting Fern be plants seeds of empathy that Zhao so carefully tends with unwavering earnestness.

To support the structureless tale, Zhao intermixes her technical prowess and storytelling talent. The use of rapid and rhythmic scene changes mirrors the fast-paced nature of the lifestyle Fern must become accustomed to.

The odd jobs she picks up to sustain her new way of life come and go as fast as the scenes cut. The striking cinematography captures the American west as more than mere backdrops, but as distinguished landscapes to aid the message of filling empty spaces with meaning.

The quality of Zhao’s work is effortlessly matched with a career-best performance from McDormand. The 2018 Best Actress winner is a sure contender for the upcoming Academy Awards. Her nuanced portrayal leads a cast of non-actors and real-life nomads.

With the precision of a surgeon, Zhao draws out performances from the non-professionals, further cementing her talents as a director. Nomadland and its docu-fiction film style gently treads the tightrope of constructed reality to illuminate the misunderstood subculture of life on four wheels.

Van-dwelling has become a mainstream means of living thanks to its popularity on social media. The seemingly perfect, cost-effective lifestyle is highly romanticized with the hashtag ‘VanLife’ accumulating over eight million posts on Instagram.

Nomadland could not be further from the Instagram-filtered portrayal of van living. The film details the hardships of this life with a segment on buckets and — quite literally — “dealing with your own shit.”

Subtle story beats signify the dangers that exist in living alone on remote terrain. This dignified approach to all qualities of living on the road results in an honest depiction of the lifestyle.

The film further pushes its realism with intimate vignettes of the nomads Fern encounters along her way. Seemingly a movie made to change the perspective of the ‘American dream,’ the undercurrents of sentiment and use of real-life characters transform Nomadland into a beautiful portrait of humanity.