WHAT I LIKED: Chloe Zhao's masterful 'Nomadland' may be a film about a stoic, ruggid character living for themselves out on the wide open highway, but like some perfect, grounded Springsteen song, rather than broadcasting hope and promise through that story, it brilliantly lays bare the struggle of the supposed American Dream.
The central character Fern (Frances McDormand), along with the many other Nomads she meets, has chosen her way of life out of that primal need for freedom that lies at the heart of some of the most quintessential stories and realities. We slowly understand that from Fern as the film goes on; not just through her meeting various people and family and explaining her reasons, but mainly through her physicality as Joshua Richard's camera glues to McDormand's masterfully expressive face. Her carefree facade may well mask her struggles with loss and loneliness, but she's ultimately a restless spirit who's found peace in a life for herself on the road.
The thing is though, the film also makes it abundantly clear that living a life of true freedom in modern day America is extremely hard, as the Nomads are victims of a system that makes it almost impossible to live without a permanent address. Fern for example is forced to pay her way hand to mouth on poorly paid, exploitative and short-term jobs, and is constantly pained by questions about her choices from those outside, and that all makes for a masterful portrait of the distance between the American dream and the American reality.
But that free living without distraction with nothing but the harsh and breathtaking American landscape stretching ahead of the characters also brings into question something far more fundamental; the reasons that we choose to live at all. That's a kind of question normally raised by the likes of man-vs-nature films, but the simple existences shown here seem to justify it a simply in the small moments of human connection, joy and contentment that are experienced between all the struggles.
This is after all a film mostly made up of very small moments indeed; few explenations are offered and Zhao seems to care little about time or setting. Instead she just sets up various little human moments like Barry Jenkins would and slowly and subconsciously builds the overall portrait of her characters and themes from those. That only works because though they're so perfectly executed; be it seeing Fern make her food, scrub a bathroom wall or have a wee, or having her chat to some friends about their respective grief - it's all so unbelievably humanising because the performances are so genuine and nuanced, and because the camera isn't shy to get close and linger on those things. That shows a brilliant confidence from Zhao, and undoubtedly puts her up there with one of the most exciting new Hollywood directors, but it more importantly makes for an absolutely masterful, humanistic film that will make you think and hit you in the heart in equal measure. You can't ask for much more than that.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: There really is nothing to fault here.
VERDICT: With its beautifully small, human moments, 'Nomadland,' sees Chloe Zhao paint a perfect portrait not only of how hard freedom is in modern day America, but also the reason we might live to strive for it at all.