In Chloé Zhao’s film “Nomadland,” she shows her audience change is inescapable and uncertainty is inevitable, forming a timely yet timeless exploration of home and belonging.
In 2011, Fern (Frances McDormand) lost everything after the mine that employed most of her hometown Empire, Nevada closed and her husband died. She attempts to heal from this unimaginable loss and discover a newfound sense of freedom by swapping her home for a van and pursuing a nomadic lifestyle.
Zhao adapted the screenplay from journalist Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction novel “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century,” which examines the phenomenon after the 2008 recession of older Americans leaving behind the dream of retirement and instead traveling across the country looking for seasonal work and living out of various vehicles and mobile homes.
After Zhao’s film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020, where it won the coveted Golden Lion prize, “Nomadland” has become a tour de force on the awards circuit. As a result, Zhao won the Golden Globe for best director, making her the first Asian woman to win in the category. The film also garnered six nominations at the Oscars, including best picture, best cinematography and best actress for McDormand.
The film first came to fruition when McDormand bought the rights to the book in 2017 and approached Zhao about a possible film project. Zhao then transformed the journalistic nonfiction book into an emotional narrative that invites the audience to empathize with a community of elders that is often pushed aside. Although McDormand was the one to initiate the project, she left the writing and direction in Zhao’s hands and only played the lead character herself.
While Zhao wanted to create a fictional adaptation, the film maintains a hyperrealistic, documentary-like production style. Zhao does away with flashy editing, camerawork and lighting techniques, rendering Fern’s story more raw and intimate through naturalistic lighting and close-up shots. Her directorial choices prompt the audience to consider the dire socioeconomic inequities that push real aging Americans into situations like Fern’s.
The nomadic life is difficult, and Zhao does not attempt to romanticize the hardships that accompany this lifestyle. When Fern is traveling outside the nomadic community, she is treated like an outsider wherever she goes. There are several scenes of Fern being asked to leave spaces where she intends to park for the night, and when she does interact with friends and family from her “settled” life, they do not attempt to cloak their pity and contempt for the new life she has chosen.
While the film is certainly heartbreaking, cinematographer Joshua James Richards avoids completely devastating its viewers with a sense of visual tenderness that pervades each shot. The deep blues and purples representing the desolate cold of nights in the American West never dominate the soft glow of the firelit faces of the nomads Fern encounters.
The performances of these nomads radiate a sense of hope and courage, stemming from the risks they took by choosing this lifestyle. Above all else, McDormand’s performance truly shines. While the sorrows in Fern’s life forced her to become fiercely self-reliant and rather blunt, McDormand portrays an impish, playful side to Fern that makes her an instantly likable character. McDormand ensures Fern is seen as an active agent in directing the course of her new life, exploring each destination with a childlike wonder and opening herself to every opportunity that comes her way.
Zhao used real nomads instead of professional actors for many of the characters, including Fern’s friends Linda May and Swankie. Their authenticity lends the film a sort of intimacy that could not be achieved without their lived experiences informing their performances.
When Linda May saw the film for the first time, she expressed her appreciation for Zhao’s work.
“I know some people say, ‘Oh, it’s so depressing.’ But I don’t see that. I hope that the joy comes through. I think that Chloé got it. What more is there?” Linda May said in an interview with CNN Style.
Zhao understands many Americans may find themselves hoping to find new life paths as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down. She infuses this empathy into her direction by recognizing Fern’s desire for unattainable normalcy and her eventual acceptance of her situation resonates with audiences in the current moment. At the end of the film, Fern has a full circle moment where she comes to terms with her past and revisits all she has lost. Once she has the opportunity to say goodbye to her settled life, she can fully embrace the opportunities waiting for her on the road.
This timeliness of “Nomadland’s” release bodes well for its success in the remainder of the awards season and its lasting impact as a representation of the economic and social uncertainty of the post-recession and pandemic era.