Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress: Nomadland won all these in the 2021 Oscars. Did it deserve them?
Nomadland’s docu-fiction classification is unique. It tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who has had to leave her life behind when the mine in her home-town in rural Nevada went bust. With no money she is forced to become ‘houseless’ as opposed to ‘homeless’ – a nomad who takes to the road in her van with all that she can carry of her beloved possessions.
The movie follows Fern as she works in various casual jobs, from Amazon warehouses to beet-picking (McDormand really did all those jobs btw), mirroring the lifestyle of real nomads, the baby-boomers who lost out in the last great recession. In fact every other actor, apart from David Strathairn who plays her admirer, is a real-life nomad. Most of them had no idea that McDormand is an Oscar-winning Hollywood actor and indeed, Bob the guru of the community, congratulated on her braveness in opening her heart to him about her husband’s death, little realising it was all a script.
Therein lies the contradiction. In trying to be true to the lifestyle of an unrooted people, showing their kindness and humanity in the face of all tribulations, Chloe Zhao has put together an ensemble production where the lines blur and the pace is of necessity not dramatic. I also now wonder at the element of dishonesty involved to achieve the social realism.
A narrative is only introduced through the device of using the real actors to create a storyline, while the stars of the show, the resilient travellers in their RVs, just keep on trucking. That is not to say there aren’t some heart-stealing and emotional scenes, all the more poignant when you know them to be truly spoken. I cannot omit a mention of the big skies and barren landscapes which echo the theme of freedom which underscores the film.
But in the Vicky Oscars Nomadland did not win the main prizes. Minari should have been Best Film, Quo Vadis Aida’s star Jasna Đuričić, Best Actress, and Best Director between Jasmila Žbanić (Quo Vadis) or Minari’s Lee Isaac Chung. All equally inclusive and diverse in Oscar terms. That’s not to take away from McDormand’s performance and the landmark achievement of an Asian woman winning an Oscar and being only the second woman to do so.