Film Review: Nomadland

In her third feature film, director Chloe Zhao blurs reality with fiction in her film about real-life American nomads.

Equal parts documentary and fiction, Chloe Zhao’s genre-bending film “Nomadland” creates a raw portrait of people struggling to attain the American Dream amid the 2011 Recession. “Nomadland” follows Fern (Frances McDormand) after the shutdown of the U.S. Gypsum’s company town, Empire, and the subsequent dislocation of its many inhabitants. As a company town, U.S. Gypsum provided work for all of its residents, and its sudden closure led to financial instability for Fern and her neighbors. Fern is a fictionalized character whose experiences mirror many Americans’ lives during the recession. Like many displaced former-residents of Empire, Fern is forced to search for work across the country and sells all of her belongings to purchase a white van, nicknamed Vanguard, that becomes her makeshift home. 

As she traverses across the western United States, Fern meets other displaced people who drift from job to job. The nomads, as the van-dwellers like to call themselves, form their own tight-knit community despite their constant life changes and financial instability. Throughout her travels, Fern must reconcile herself to a new nomadic milieu and what it means to be, as she succinctly puts it, “not homeless, just houseless.”

In many ways, “Nomadland”’s status as an Oscar front-runner deviates from the traditional boys-club ethos of Hollywood film awards. Chloe Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker, is slated to win Best Director at the 2021 Oscars in April, which would make her the first Asian woman to be nominated for this category in Oscar history. This is particularly impressive considering “Nomadland”’s independent studio origins and cast of primarily non-professional actors — McDormand being the most notable exception. Ultimately, Chloe Zhao’s talent as a writer, director, and editor produced an emotionally evocative and visually stunning film.

Like her 2017 film “The Rider,” human relationships are at the center of Zhao’s “Nomadland.” The film is partly based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction novel of the same name, and although Fern’s character and experiences are fabricated, various real-life nomads mentioned in the book have cameos.  Indeed, many of Fern’s closest companions — a van-dweller named Swankie who suffers from terminal brain cancer and a grandmother named Linda May who lives out of a Jeep — play versions of their real-life selves. McDormand imbues Fern with a sense of reservation that complements her co-stars’ inexperience in front of the camera. She lends stability to each scene so that the nonprofessional actors playing supporting roles can simply be themselves and tap into the truth of their personal experiences as American nomads. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, a terminally-ill Swankie reveals the immense joy found in her simple lifestyle and details the most important moments of her life: watching a moose family cross a river in Idaho, sensing white pelicans flying above her kayak, and seeing her reflection in the water of a lake. Here, Fern plays a secondary role to Swankie’s vulnerability and remains silent and out of the camera’s view for the majority of the sequence. The scene works so well in part because it offers a rare glimpse into the personalities and backstories of the minor characters who embellish the film with genuine moments of companionship. 

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards weaves scenes of rocks, campfires, and sunsets of the American West that underscore the beauty of the nomadic lifestyle. Richards’s cinematography dwells on the Western horizon and its soft colors; his command of the camera illuminates the actors against a backdrop of Western America and the natural landscapes that the van-dwellers frequently inhabit. Between Zhao and Richards, “Nomadland” is fitted with an aesthetic nostalgia for a not-so-distant past.

While “Nomadland” is ostensibly about the 2011 American recession and its political and social consequences, Zhao glosses over the incompetent government response to the crisis and evades any substantive discussion about politics. In this alternative universe, Amazon is not a monopoly that abuses its market power but rather a harmless company that hires workers with fair benefits and wages. In one sequence, Fern’s close friend Davie (David Strathairn) undergoes a surgery, but the gritty details of healthcare and insurance are deliberately omitted; viewers are left to wonder how exactly a person without a permanent address and temporary job could afford and navigate the complicated healthcare system. It’s almost too easy to get bogged down in what genre and political affiliation “Nomadland” is associated with, but Zhao’s incomparable piece on the American spirit transcends the limiting boundaries of genre and the expectations of political pieces. Instead, Zhao delivers a picturesque, intimate, and sometimes murky rumination on modern-day nomads.

Grade: B+
Director: Chloe Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
Release Date: February 19, 2021
Rated: R

Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

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