Chloé Zhao straddles the fence between creator and documentarian in her adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, simply titled Nomadland. Returning to the style of using almost entirely non-actors which won her critical acclaim with The Rider, Zhao seeks to bring viewers into the lives of everyday Americans with no judgement, or attempted political statement. It’s an often awkward, heartfelt look at the joys and tribulations of a distinctly American culture.
Nomadland opens introducing viewers to Empire, Nevada, a town whose zip code was suspended once the town’s US Gypsum plant closed down and residents were forced to abandon the town in search of new work. It’s here where, without much fanfare, so many of the film’s central issues begin to rest in the background; American’s need and desire to work, the lack of options when hard times come, what to do when you’re left behind and how to grieve something you weren’t ready to let go of.
Shortly thereafter viewers are introduced to Fern, played by Frances McDormand. It’s not a stretch to say that McDormand’s turn here might remind viewers of her last star performance as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Both characters exert a small-town grit, and a tenacity for the honest ways of life, however, where McDormand tackled Hayes with a lot of bombast and anger, she portrays Fern with a joyful awkwardness that’s meant to match the feeling of seeing non-actors on screen with her.
It follows that it’s not really until McDormand’s Fern is around other nomads such as Linda ,played by Linda May, and the scene-stealing Swankie, played by Charlene Swankie, that her performance really comes into its own. But until she gets there, viewers are brought along on Fern’s search for work and a way to pay for the things she needs to live. Learning that the money she’d receive from early retirement wouldn’t even pay for a place to park her van, Fern turns to other avenues, and follows her friend Linda May to Arizona to meet up with other nomads and learn how to take care of themselves.
It’s here where Nomadland truly opens up, in terms of Fern’s story, the film’s thematic scope and in Zhao’s directing. Here the organizer of this meet-up, Bob Wells, played by Bob Wells, rails against the tyranny of the dollar, and the system which looks to put older Americans out to pasture.
This is followed up with several small scenes of other nomads just telling their stories, and this is where Zhao seems to take a step back and begin working more as a documentarian than a story-teller. Here real people are left alone with the camera to tell what, by all accounts, seems to be their real stories, and it’s one of the most engaging parts of the film. Zhao will use this technique several times over.
It’s easy to see from here what Zhao is interested in sharing with viewers, and it should be no surprise to those who’ve seen her work in The Rider. She wants to convey the story of the Americans that have been left behind. What’s fascinating here though, is that where a lesser director would craft a film dripping with pity for these people, Zhao takes every chance to allow them agency. What could’ve been poverty porn, became a movie which sees elderly Americans living like college students, and learning how to live again. It’s a formula which allows for so much random joy.
The prime example of this is Swankie. In another beautiful moment where Zhao steps back and plays documentarian, viewers are brought into Swankie’s story. It’s a moment which will makes viewers feel as if they’re sitting at the feet of an aging relative, learning for the first time that this person has lived a full life, and that they’re mature enough to confront their own death with clear eyes. Swankie and Zhao remind viewers here of the respect withheld from many older American simply because of their situations, or worse, their age.
In the same vain, where a lesser director might’ve used this story for a political statement, Zhao seems to understand that you can’t honestly craft a vision of someone’s life and have it be a political statement at the same time. People are too complicated. It’s easy to see that where Fern is confronted with what might seem like extraordinary problems, there are also others that are extraordinarily graceful to her, and it might be her that’s problematic. Or, it might just be that some Americans want to live a different life than what’s traditionally prescribed and that’s hard to wrap your head around.
Working hand in hand with Zhao’s scripting and directing is Joshua James Richards’ cinematography. While Zhao is telling the story of rediscovering how to live, and the love of life, Richards is convincing viewers that life is beautiful. It’s a beautiful two-handed act that helps viewers along the journey. While it might seem ostentatious and slow at first, quickly viewers are finding themselves quietly soaking in the grandeur of the nomadic life. One has a hard time feeling sorry for these people when the world around them seems so extravagantly beautiful.
The only time Nomadland seems to falter is right at the very end. While on subsequent viewings this might change, the film initially seems to have like 5 endings. It’s something that makes the end of the film rather tiring, as it seems to spin its wheels to make the same point repeatedly. One can appreciate the full circle it’s attempting to makes, but it’s unnecessary and detrimental to the overall film.
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