Chloe Zhao was born in China but studied filmmaking in the United States. The mythic, poetically rugged expanses of America, where Zhao now lives, inspired her acclaimed Songs My Brother Taught Me and her second movie The Rider. Zhao’s third feature Nomadland has propelled her into the mainstream – and the front of the Oscar race.
Nomadland has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Direction. The 108-minute adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century builds on themes explored by Zhao in her previous films.
Her assured debut Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015), about the experiences of two Native American siblings struggling to get by, was marked by elements that would recur in Zhao’s subsequent works – characters drawn from the margins of American life, an observational and naturalistic style, handheld camerawork and the relationship of people with their landscapes.
Americans both historically displaced and forsaken by late capitalism also feature in The Rider (2017), about a rodeo cowboy who suffers a grievous injury. Working with a real-life family who play versions of themselves, Zhao unerringly sketches a portrait of personal courage and redemption in a part of America that is on the verge of falling off the map.
Both films explore the idea of home and belonging, and both feature horses. In Nomadland, the very idea of home has quite literally vanished, while the equine mode of transport has been replaced by a van.
The movie is set in 2011, when the effects of the economic recession from a few years before continue to play out in immeasurable ways. The shuttering of a mine leads to the collapse of the town built around it. Left only with memories and a few belongings, Fern (Frances McDormand) piles into her utility vehicle (nicknamed “Vanguard”) and heads out on a voyage of self-discovery.
Fern earns her way by working part-time at an Amazon packaging unit. Linda, one of her friends and colleagues, tells Fern about a community of vandwellers who have congregated around the charismatic activist Bob Wells. At a camp presided over by Bob, Fern makes other friends, including Swankie and Dave, picks up van-dwelling hacks, and begins to sink deeper into her new life.
Home is what you carry within you, Fern declares. But does she always believe her own words? Zhao’s screenplay beautifully explores Fern’s conflicting states of attachment and detachment, solitude and loneliness. Fern’s interactions with Dave (David Strathairn) promise companionship and joy, but she hesitates to go through the door.
The paradoxes of an unstable economy with poor social security as well as ready employment for temporary labour affects its characters in different ways. Always hard up for extra cash and hopping from one gruelling job to the next, Fern nevertheless extracts small pleasures from this precarious existence. The movie’s romanticised depiction of vandwelling acknowledges the circumstances that have forced people like Linda May and Fern to give the cherished American value of self-reliance a whole new meaning.
Chloe Zhao has previously worked with untrained actors. In Nomadland too, several performers charmingly play themselves, including Swankie, Linda May and Bob Wells. In her earlier independent avatar, Zhao might have made these remarkable nomads the central characters of her adaptation. As Fern, movie star Frances McDormand never disappoints, slipping seamlessly into the semi-documentary milieu and getting under the skin of a woman dealing with aging, mortality and displacement.
Fern wears a bright smile on the outside, but it’s in the confines of her van, surrounded by familiar objects and fading photographs, that her aching loss becomes apparent. Whether gazing in wonderment at the sights she sees on the road or expressing empathy when confronted by others like her, McDormand’s Fern leaves a hole in the heart and a lump in the throat.
The unobtrusive and intimate cinematography, by Zhao’s frequent collaborator Joshua James Richards, memorably illustrates Fern’s inner and outer worlds. Zhao’s exploration of characters who conquer their surroundings despite the odds is vividly conveyed by Richards’s stark and yet poetic images. As Fern bravely steers herself into a new phase, she is accompanied by the view beyond her van window. Nature, as unbending as it is accommodating, proves to be Fern’s most loyal companion on her existential journey.