Nomadland: Sure Oscar Stuff–Noble Subject, Humanity, and Artistry–Directed by Asian American Zhao and Starring the Incomparable Frances McDormand

This year, the Best Picture frontrunner by long way is Nomadland, the almost-documentary about life among the RV-homed, itinerant underclass who wander between the  trailer camps.

Its director, Chloé Zhao, is Asian American female. Only one female-directed film has won best picture (Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) and this factor alone must have weighed heavily with Academy voters keen to get with the program.

Zhao’s film records the lives of people who deserve better, but they have been short-changed by an unjust world. It applauds their resourcefulness, indomitability and humanity.

Its charismatic characters don’t see themselves as victims. Instead of railing against late capitalism, they seem puzzlingly content with their fate.

The heroine, Fern (Frances McDormand), loses her job when her company town is hit by corporate closure. Nonetheless, she chooses life on the road not solely out of necessity, but also as a way to mourn her dead husband and find her own way forward. When comfortable suburban Americans offer her a home, she turns them down, opting instead for old-fashioned self-reliance. She even seems to enjoy being exploited in one of Amazon’s warehouses.

Zhao said: “I tried to focus on the human experience and things that I feel go beyond political statements, to be more universal.” Time, then, to consider this top seed’s claim to aesthetic excellence.

Some critics have found the film exquisite, but it is hardly masterpiece. It saunters through its gorgeous landscapes without tension or jeopardy to no particular effect.

Occasionally, sentimentality saps its portrayal of the community it celebrates: the human flotsam Fern encounters include mostly nice and helpful folks, none of the bad folks that their way of life must inevitably attract.