Zhao wrote, directed, and edited Nomadland, which is based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Zhao stays true to the roots of realism by folding non-actors and actual modern-day nomads into her film to give audiences an authentic feel for the way of life it portrays. However, the film is centered on two-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, who plays the aforementioned widow, Fern. Her backstory is explained simply in opening title cards. She lived in a town called Empire, Nevada, where a sheet rock factory was the core of its economy. When it closed in 2011, so too did the town, losing its zip code. Having recently lost her husband, Fran was left without a house, without a job, and without her community, who scattered to the winds. So, she bought a van and set out to grab a piece of the nomad life.
This is not a film with a plot. Nomadland follows her from one seasonal job to the next. She is an Amazon packer for the holiday rush, an RV park host for tourist season, a waitress come fall. We witness her struggles to make a home of her small van, giving it sentimental touches and critical repairs. But there is no destination in mind. The destination is the journey. So, the movie doesn’t move as much as it meanders. For some, this may prove a frustration. For me, it was overwhelmingly glorious.It’s a cliché to say that movies matter more now than ever. But as so many of us are in lockdown, barred from travel, loved ones, and physical contact to keep each other safe, watching this movie was a blessing and a balm. In the first sequence, we see Fern silently saying goodbye to her old life by hugging a neighbor farewell. She holds him so tightly that you can see his winter coat buckle under the pressure of her grip. You can almost feel that hug because of how Zhao captures such textures. This sense of immediacy and intimacy only grows more intense as the film goes on. With a spare score, Zhao urges us to forget the artifice of narrative cinema and ease into the footsteps of Fern.
Tellingly, the teaser release for this film is just Fern walking through a camp of nomads, some gathered and chatting, others exercising together, others working on their caravans. All the while, she’s treading her own path. Watching her do so is absolutely exhilarating because of Zhao’s approach. Without an intrusive score, we are encouraged to hear the simple sounds of the American desert: the scrape of rocks underfoot, the crackle of the campfire, or the soft howl of the wind. But most of all, we are encouraged to hear–and really take in–the stories of these nomads, who gather, disperse, and meet again somewhere down the road. The gentle light of the fire caresses faces hardened by tough times. They tell tales of loss, rebellion, and rebirth. They laugh together, talking of the less fun parts of nomad life (spoilers: it involves a bucket). They commiserate, advise, and share, creating a community that is rich and kind though always on the move.
It is a gift to be allowed into this space, to be trusted to be a nomad vicariously. Yet Zhao doesn’t romanticize the experience. She uses subtle story beats to establish the dangers that exist in this life for an older woman on her own in remote terrain. Sharply, she contrasts this to the more typical American lifestyle by having Fern visit a couple of friends in their house. A sly contrast emerges between the conversations around the nomad campfire and the backyard grill, the latter slippery with smugness. Fern has little patience for suburban superiority, in part because she knows all too well the lie of this American Dream. Through her story and others unfurled, Zhao explores how salt-of-the-Earth hard-working Americans can bust their asses their whole adult lives, and still wind up with next to nothing. The Dream is a cushy retirement in a big, beautiful house, but their reality is cramped, uncertain, and rolling.
In her previous film, The Rider, Zhao trusted non-actor leads to carry the story based on their lives. Here, she allows a storied actor to shoulder Nomadland. McDormand does a sensational job, filling every frame with character through nuance. Zhao spares us the kinds of flowery speeches that Oscar-bait movies tend to offer. Fern won’t have a tearful, screaming breakdown or neatly summarize in a soliloquy about what she’s learned from her life on the road. Instead, her character is defined by how she hugs so hard, how her eyes flit with irritation when she’s questioned, how her teeth grit tight when a friendly gesture causes a shattering accident. Rather than drawing us in with big spectacle, flowery speeches, or a high-concept premise, Nomadland pulls us in by these small moments that demand our full attention. Much of this performance is reaction. McDormand unfurls character in how Fern reacts to the stories of these remarkable people, who found hope, joy, and freedom when the American Dream let them down. As such, McDormand is a kind of Trojan Horse, leading us in with her name and her prestige, then serving as a platform to share these peoples’ experiences. And yet, as impeccable as her performance is, her familiar face –as well as that of co-star David Strathairn — becomes a bit of a distraction. In the face of so much realness, they become a reminder of artifice. So, even as I think McDormand has turned in another performance that could have Oscar calling her name, I am conflicted about their inclusion.