Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is her most technically accomplished, accessible, and sadly, conventional and sentimental work to date. Keep up to date with our TIFF ’20 coverage.
Five years after premiering her excellent but little-seen first feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), at Sundance, writer-director-editor Chloé Zhao’s third feature, Nomadland, is one of the biggest tickets at TIFF this year. It also just picked up the Golden Lion for Best Film at this year’s Venice Film Festival. It’s a clear path to the Oscars from here, and soon, Zhao will release a Marvel movie, too. The film is Zhao’s most technically accomplished, accessible, and sadly, conventional and sentimental work to date.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a recent widow who has also been displaced from her home of many years, a mining town that all but disappeared in just a few months, as the opening title card informs us. Out of economic necessity, she’s taken to living out of a van, picking up blue collar work wherever she can; Amazon pays best, but there are gigs along the road that let her see the country. Whenever Fern is forced to reflect on her old life, her husband, and her home, there’s a glint in McDormand’s eye, like she could burst into tears at any moment, but has learned to keep it together.
All of Zhao’s films have been works of docu-fiction, in which she collaborates with the community she’s depicting to tell a work of fiction loosely based on the lives of the people involved. Before Nomadland, she had never worked with professional actors. Songs My Brothers Taught Me was the story of a brother and sister living on a reserve, their extended family and community, and the catch-22 of leaving home where the land is precious or staying in a place without opportunity. The Rider (2017) had a narrower scope and a neater arc, following real life rodeo champion Brady Jandreau, playing a version of himself, recovering from a near fatal head injury.
Nomadland differs from Zhao’s previous work because here she has embedded actress McDormand into the community of American nomads who live out of their vans, rather than pulling her main character from the real life participants that tell their stories throughout the film. In so doing, she loses the insider feel of her other films, creating, instead, a completely fictitious perspective character through whose journey we can encounter documentary-like scenes with real-life nomads. That more obvious mix of fact and fiction had me repeatedly wondering more about the story behind the making of the film — why not, for example, just make a documentary — than about Fern’s story, which feels like a fairytale journey to discover the American Dream.
McDormand does a remarkable job of fitting right in with this community, responding in the moment to their stories. Meanwhile, cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who has shot all of Zhao’s films, captures the faces and spaces of these constant travelers with real intimacy and empathy. Zhao shows us the squalor they sometimes live in, but nobody in this film, not even a woman with only eight months to live, ever seems to really lose hope.
That’s a pleasant story to inhabit, but it feels somewhat disingenuous given the real-life problems these characters likely face when living without an address. The ability to pick up work in any town, no questions asked, is likely a specifically white privilege in the US, and it goes unspoken that those are the characters we meet in the film. Everyone Fern meets along the road is also friendly if not outright helpful: nobody is threatening, indifferent, or so individualistic as to ignore her if she’s in need. Whereas Wendy in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) faced people indifferent to her or actively working against her, as Angelo Muredda explores brilliantly in his essay in Roads to nowhere: Kelly Reichardt’s broken American dreams, Fern encounters no such roadblocks.
Fern and her friend David (David Strathairn), whom she meets on the road, also have a cushy safety net that the average nomad in this lifestyle likely doesn’t. When David unexpectedly needs emergency surgery in the middle of nowhere, it gets done without a hitch: there’s seemingly no financial burden, when a part-time worker likely doesn’t have health insurance, and even people with insurance regularly find themselves with impossible bills to pay if they accidentally visit a hospital out of their network. Both Fern and David also have warm, welcoming family to fall back on when they need help or even a permanent home in their family’s mansion. It’s a luxury which obscures the wider American problem of a non-existent safety net — something filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt in Wendy and Lucy and Debra Granik in Leave No Trace have explored brilliantly.
Indeed, as much as Fern yearns for her old life — the house she lived in, the husband she loved — the open road is kind, and well, open to her. She never encounters a setback which could truly jeopardize her way of life. And she’s found a way to stay independent and see the world — in other words, to live the American dream — when her financial situation should forbid it. And what a gorgeous world she sees. Richards captures Fern walking about and gazing at such incredible landscapes: from multiple kinds of rocky terrain, to mountains, to the California redwoods and seaside. She may be alone in a van that may not function forever, but there sure are sights to see.
Nomadland is one of three films I’ve seen at TIFF thus far about people displaced from their homes, and it’s also the most sentimental. Whereas Bandar Band and Limbo are thoughtful studies of a place and people with no choice but to carry on, however impossible that may seem, Nomadland exists in a world where any bad things have already happened. Talking about the past is traumatic for the characters in the other two films, while Zhao repeatedly has characters exposit to ensure we explicitly understand everything about Fern’s backstory that was economically communicated in the film’s first scene, where she wistfully sniffs a man’s coat before giving it a way. The coat clearly belonged to a lost loved one, and the context lets us surmise it was her husband. Zhao has a tendency to over-explain in the film even if Nomadland is restrained by American — and American prestige picture — standards.