Chloé Zhao, the filmmaker who’s made waves within the independent film world with 2015’s Songs My Brother Taught Me and 2017’s The Rider, is about to break big this year with Eternals, the Marvel superhero film slated for release on November 5, 2021. Before that tentpole film drops, Zhao’s directed, written and co-produced the road drama Nomadland, which stars Oscar winner Frances McDormand.
Nomadland is about the modern-day gypsy. They are products of the Great Recession and they travel from place to place for work. These nomads typically live off the grid and in their vans.
That brings us to Fern (McDormand), a recent widower who worked at a gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada for years until it permanently shut down. Without a job and without a family, Fern sets out on the road to live the nomad’s life. Along the way, she meets and befriends other nomads who mentor her and help her find work. Although Fern has become a part of this community and befriends David (David Strathairn), her journeys are taken alone, which gives her time to contemplate life – specifically her own.
Based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland isn’t a film one would watch for entertainment. Nomadland is more a documentary that specifically follows Fern and her various moves across the western part of the country. It’s clear Zhao wants to showcase this portion of American life the rest of the country is readily willing to leave behind.
These nomads, though, were once the backbone of a thankless working-class America. And despite existing out of sight and mind, they still provide a semi-solid foundation for the remnants of a post-recession America.
Adding to the documentary feel, Zhao commissioned real-life nomads to co-star alongside McDormand and Strathairn; most notably Linda May (who invites Fern to a community/support system of nomads), Charlene Swankie (a terminally-ill nomad who mentors Fern on road survival skills) and Bob Wells (the leader of the nomad support group Fern joins). It lends to Nomadland’s authenticity and realism, all while providing an in-depth look at the nomadic lifestyle.
Instead of offering entertainment, Nomadland is quiet character study with honesty and emotion. It is an introspective tale that saunters poetically and works best when viewers compare their lives to their nomadic counterparts.
In lieu of that, Zhao asks a simple question – what is home? Most of society believes in the traditional sense of home – a house with 2-3 bedrooms, 2-3 baths, a big yard, 2-3 cars, children and a maybe family pet. Although that’s a typical definition of home, it’s a level not everyone can reach.
Nomadland proves home can be different things. In a nomad's case, home is wherever you lay your head down - meaning the back of a van, a truck stop parking lot, in a sleeping bag under the stars, or a bench at a isolated park.
On a related note, Joshua James Richards, who worked with Zhao on her previous directing efforts, serves as cinematographer and provided beautiful shots of America at its most natural state.
Through a fantastic performance from McDormand (Zhao uses McDormand to great effect – Fern’s face tells plenty about herself and the world she lives in), audiences will discover that unusual, nonconformist view of home and family. But Nomadland’s legacy rests on the notion that, no matter the how different a life you lead, the bonds of family and companionship, alongside the resiliency of the human spirit, are universal.
Having made history as the first film to win top prize at both the Venice Film Festival (Golden Lion) and the Toronto International Film Festival (People’s Choice Award), Nomadland enjoyed a short one-week steaming release on December 4th, 2020. It will begin its theatrical run on February 19th, 2021.
Its Oscar chances are high, despite it not being a film for the masses.
4 stars out of 5