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RELEVANT Recommends: ‘Nomadland’

Every week on RELEVANT Recommends, we recommend a new movie, TV show, book, album or even a video game worth your time. This week, with the release of the Golden Globe nominations, we decided to cover a big awards contender you may have missed: Nomadland.

You’ve probably never seen a movie quite like Nomadland, which isn’t quite a documentary but isn’t totally scripted either. The movie was helmed by Chloe Zhao and inspired by a nonfiction book of the same name. That book, by Jessica Bruder, tells the true story of a new generation of 60 and 70-something Americans who saw their economic future atomized by the 2008 stock market crash. Too poor to retire but too old to get steady work, they’ve become modern day nomads — itinerant wanderers who roam the American West in camper vans, taking on work wherever they find it. 

Chloe Zhao’s movie follows these nomads documentary-style but she also builds an imagined story within their world which is centered on a woman named Fern, played by Frances McDormand, one of the movie’s few professional actors. It’s one of McDormand’s all-time great performances, and she blends seamlessly into the world around her. In the hands of a lesser talent, having a real star acting among actual people would be distracting at best, offensive at worst, but Zhao and McDormand approach their subject with humility, grace and even, at times, genuine wonder. The result is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes infuriating and sometimes euphoric. 

That unfiltered rawness sets Nomadland apart. It’s a little reminiscent of Terrence Malick, both in tone and in the impressionistic narrative, which is more a portrait of a time, place and people than it is a series of events. Disconcertingly, the movie has the look and feel of a post-apocalyptic wasteland and, while watching, you do sort of get the sense that the end of an American world came not with a bang, but a whisper so soft many people missed it altogether. But for others, it was unmistakable — and those people are the nomads. 

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Nomadland netted a best director and best screenwriter nomination for Chloe Zhao — this is just her second movie, her next one Eternals for Marvel Studios; McDormand got a nomination for Best Actress; and the movie was nominated for Best Drama. It’s in limited release in theaters right now and will be on Hulu on February 19. We recommend it.

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