Oscar nominee profile: Adapted Screenplay ‘Nomadland’ offers a unique and haunting tone poem

Filmmaker Chloè Zhao, as any Oscar fan probably knows, has set a record this year, becoming the first woman ever to be nominated for four individual Oscars in a single year, with her work on “Nomadland” being cited for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay. Though “Nomadland” is considered by many to be the front-runner in several Oscar categories, one contest that is proving to be particularly hot this year is the writing race.

Having already won the Critics Choice and the USC Scripter Awards, Zhao’s screenplay is locked in an extremely competitive contest against two other award-winning screenplays — Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller‘s “The Father” which triumphed at the BAFTAs and the writing team behind “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” which won this year’s Writers Guild Award (where “Nomadland” and “The Father” were ineligible). Add to that two other highly-regarded screenplay adaptations — Kemp Powers for adapting his stage play “One Night in Miami….” and Ramin Bahrani for adapting the novel “The White Tiger” — and you’ve got a mighty tight race for this year’s Oscar.

Unlike her fellow nominees, who adapted works of fiction to the screen, Zhao’s screenplay stands out from the pack given its source material — Jessica Bruder‘s best-selling non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” In it, Bruder profiles many Americans, mostly elderly, who were forced out of their middle or lower-class jobs and spent what money they had left to buy a camper or RV to live a new life on the road. Several of those profiled by Bruder (including campsite founder Bob Wells, Linda May and the charismatic Charlene Swankie) appear as themselves in the film and are allowed by Zhao to tell their own stories.

In fact, it is just that compelling idea of casting real nomads to interact with our fictional heroine Fern (Oscar nominee Frances McDormand) that distinguishes Zhao’s script and turns what could have been an exploitative stunt into a tender portrait of those whom our economy has failed and have taken it upon themselves, even at their advanced ages, to reinvent their lives one last time. To my mind, the fact that the dialogue in Zhao’s script is minimal actually helps to make what both her fictional characters and her real-life subjects have to say land with much greater impact.

In addition to the awards that Zhao’s screenplay has won, it has also received Best Adapted Screenplay nominations for the BAFTA, Golden Globe and Hollywood Film Critics Awards.

Much of the praise for “Nomadland” has focused on the film’s visual beauty and Zhao’s intimate directorial style. But it is the grace that Zhao shows toward her subjects in her remarkable screenplay that truly helps to make “Nomadland” a unique and haunting tone poem of a film.

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