With only three feature films under her belt, Chloé Zhao has already proven herself to be an essential filmmaker of our time. Her first two films “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider” were both honest and heartfelt blends of real life and fiction that focused on people living on the fringes of modern society. Her latest “Nomadland” is cut from the same deeply human cloth and the three films together play like a slice-of-life trilogy set in the American West.
“Nomadland” has been a hit on the festival circuit since premiering in September, taking home top honors in both Venice and Toronto. The film is based on the nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder which explores the lives of Americans travelling from place to place doing seasonal work while living out of their vans and RVs. Zhao (who serves as writer, director, and editor) doesn’t set out to adapt the book as much as capture the spirit of these free-wandering van-dwellers.
In true immersive nomadic fashion Zhao, her star Frances McDormand, and many from the crew lived out of vans for much of the four month shoot. And as with her previous works Zhao populates her film with real people playing versions of themselves. It’s a Bressonian touch that strips away any artifice or bravura for the sake of raw, unvarnished authenticity. And what better professional actress to meld into that deep-rooted setting than McDormand. This is easily the Oscar winner’s most subtle and unmannered performance, brilliantly coating her character in these unique real-world sensibilities.
McDormand plays Fern, a widow in her early 60’s originally from Empire, Nevada who lost what what seemed like a happy life. Following her husband’s death Empire’s lifeblood, a gypsum plant, closed and the town itself soon followed. People were forced to move away in search of work and within six months the town’s zip code had been eliminated. It’s a vivid reality that may be lost on some but will be painfully real for many in small-town rural America.
Now Fern lives an itinerant life, looking for work and living out of her customized van which she has affectionately named Vanguard. At first you get the sense that Fern isn’t looking to be a nomad. It’s a matter of necessity. She doesn’t consider herself homeless. “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” she explains to a former pupil. “Not the same thing, right?” Over time, especially after befriending new people along her journey, the alone and quietly mourning Fern begins to embrace the life of a wanderer, seeing it as the one place someone like her can carve out an existence.
Through Zhao’s neo-realist lens, Fern’s journey is realized with aching detail, moving along with a near lyrical style that makes the mundane and routine flow with narrative and emotional meaning. Whether she’s working at an Amazon fulfillment center during their Christmas rush, cleaning bathrooms at an RV park, or watching a Nevada sunset from a lawn chair. Seemingly simple things matter and when threaded together by Zhao’s mesmerizing storytelling, it’s hard not to be moved.
And the people Fern meets along the way are just as important. The story features several real-life nomads – nonprofessional actors who are as essential to the film’s setting as any location. Salt-of-the-Earth people who bring their unconventional lifestyles into focus. Linda May and Swankie are two friends and mentors who take Fern under their wings while Bob runs Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a traveling training and support group for van-dwellers. The lone seasoned actor she meets is the always reliable David Strathairn. He plays a fellow nomad who takes a liking to Fern. But while her wandering journey is just beginning, his appears to be approaching its end.
Zhao’s careful casting means so much to the story, but the visual language is equally vital. It’s easy to get lost in cinematographer Joshua James Richards stunning gaze. Whether he’s capturing a picturesque ocean sunset or a vast arid valley lined with snow-capped mountains. It’s the same for the deeply humanizing ways he frames the characters. When brought together through Zhao’s Oscar-worthy editing, it’s like postcards of America’s natural beauty built around a story of grief, introspection, and self-discovery. Then add in the soul-stirring score by Ludovico Einaudi whose mix of piano chords and strings are as evocative as they are lovely. It’s easily one of my favorite scores of the year.
From a Nevada desert through the South Dakota Badlands to the Pacific coast, “Nomadland” is a work of visual poetry, but it’s the human element at its core that gives it such an emotional pull. In one sense observing the freedom felt by van-dwellers is inspiring and heartwarming. But the steady undercurrent of loneliness and uncertainty is a solemn reminder of the day-to-day reality for those who have fallen through America’s economic cracks. “Nomadland” is set for a one-week virtual screening December 4th before opening in theaters February 19, 2021.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS