Chloe Zhao paints a moody landscape of the American West with her new film “Nomadland.” Her latest project, now available to stream on Hulu, captures the lives of communal travelers who willingly live their final years on the road. They work odd jobs to supplement whatever income or Social Security they have leftover and sleep inside their vans or campers in park-friendly locations. Within this profile of a post-urban subculture, the underlying issues of class and the deteriorating American Dream are touched upon as Zhao explores the spiritual and the human side of this modest existence.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a tough-as-nails widow who works part-time hours at an Amazon fulfillment center. Her hometown of Empire, Nevada, was decimated after the financial crash of 2008, the whole population now forced to relocate as the economy let the small mining town shrivel. Soon after, Fern’s husband died and all she had left is a beat-up white van. There she cooks, sleeps and entertains whenever company stops by. Her acquaintances and friends come in the form of other nomads, generally of retirement age but unable to live on what was left for them after the crash. They park in the desert rest areas across California and Arizona and survive by trading goods and services while working menial labor positions when they can.
Linda May and Swankie are a few of the many non-actors who play a version of themselves as they tell their stories of abandonment, loss and finding themselves again within the nomadic lifestyle. David Strathairn co-stars as one of the only seasoned actors alongside McDormand, but you’d hardly believe it as he embodies a rugged working-class personality, out of type from the suit-and-tie professional-class characters he’s usually cast. McDormand has sincere and palpable chemistry with everyone she shares the screen with, and her flirtatious but wholesome relationship with Strathairn’s Dave leaves the audience wondering if together the couple can establish a life somewhere permanently or if they’ll remain married to the road.
Zhao’s visual direction, along with the warmth and humanity that exudes from this movie, recalls the spiritual children of Terrence Malick. Filmmakers such as Kelly Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff”), early-era David Gordon Green (“George Washington”) and perhaps most similar, Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”) share DNA with this film. All these directors allow for natural lighting, minimal use of sets, sprawling vistas of their cinematic landscapes, as well as a tender connection to the minds and souls of their characters.
Zhao portrays the unusual lifestyle of her characters with the understanding that it’s hard and representative of the marginalized pockets of the American economic reality, but the perspective never observes them from a place of performative pity or condescending compassion.
“Nomadland” is a drama that knows when to breathe and doesn’t force conflict or three-act plot devices that would otherwise derail the emotional journey. All the performers, actors and non-actors alike, are incredibly authentic in a way that reflects the sparse, earthy simplicity of the world this film inhabits.
Fern’s universal arc is one of total surrender from the loss of identity that comes with unexpected life changes. In the year 2021, that is a highly relatable circumstance and worthy of close examination.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.