“Being human means yearning for more than subsistence. As much as food or shelter, we require hope.” –– Jessica Bruder, Nomadland.
With Nomadland, Chinese-American director Chloé Zhao has once again shown that she marches to a different drummer in her subject matter and the blending of genres in her works. Using non-actors in situ, Zhao’s films mix documentary with fiction to create authentic narrative dramas. Her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, explores the family relationship of young people living in a South Dakota Indian reservation where she shot on location. Zhao’s second film, The Rider, brought her international acclaim with its lyrical portrait of a modern-day cowboy striving to recover from a debilitating brain injury. The director’s camera went right into the homes and community of real-life bronco riders.
As with Zhao’s previous works, she puts a marginal group onto the big screen in Nomadland, based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book of the same name. The subject matter focuses on modern-day nomads in America, itinerant workers living in their vans or campers parked on RV lots in several Western States. They work in harvests, camp grounds or on the concrete field inside Amazon warehouses. CamperForce is the newly coined term for this demographic made up of workers mostly in their 60s and 70s. Zhao transposed Bruder’s research, statistics and testimonials onto the screen in her unique way of filmmaking. Real life vandwellers bring authenticity as they play themselves — Linda May, Swankie and RV-Living pioneer/mentor Bob Wells — sharing candid, personal views about their choice of living.
Reading Bruder’s book brings back flashes of scenes from John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. But unlike the dust bowl family desperately seeking work to survive, these modern-day van and RV dwellers, many of them victims of the 2008 recession, are satisfied with living on the road and finding work as they go. Their hope is that they could continue to sustain their self-sufficient lifestyle, enjoy their freedom and connect with the land and nature.
What Bruder has researched and written in her book, Zhao has vividly captured and realized in her film, crafting a visual chronicle of natural beauty to present this marginal sector of the American population. Zhao, who wrote, directed and edited the feature, could have made it into a social commentary on the evils of corporate America or the exploitive, bubbled economy; Ken Loach comes to mind. Instead, Zhao chooses a quiet, aesthetic stroke to highlight the humanity of the nomads. Among them, she focuses on one lone woman who travels on a path of her own choosing.
Frances McDormand portrays Fern, a widow who takes to the road after the USG Gypsum Mine shut down and the whole town of Empire, Nevada disappeared in 2011. At first, Fern is like an outsider looking in, making friends with other nomads, learning the skills of self-sufficiency and enjoying the camaraderie. She quietly observes their convivial and hopeful mindset — no “goodbyes” but “see you down the road.” When approached by a teenager she knows in a store, Fern explains her situation this way: “I’m not homeless, just houseless. Not the same.”
Half way into Nomadland, Fern becomes the focal point of an absorbing story as she weaves tighter into the lives of her friends Linda May, Swankie and Dave (David Strathairn), the last of whom offers an alternative to living on the road. The film becomes more engaging through Fern’s ambivalence and resolution, as she winds deep into a journey of soul-searching.
McDormand’s portrayal of Fern is spot-on with a naturalistic weariness and dishevelled hair. Her unassuming presence blends well with other nomads who are non-actors. The two-time Oscar winner exudes a modest but persuasive quality in her sensitive performance. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who has worked on Zhao’s previous features, once again excels in contrasting the immensity of nature against one human being as Fern treads the badlands, or faces the roaring waves beating against cragged rocks, or when she hugs and reaches just a portion of a giant tree trunk. Terrence Malick comes to mind, but there’s an essential difference here. While Malick uses nature to point to the spiritual, most evident in The Tree of Life, Zhao remains humanistic.
Nomadland’s music complements the lyrical camera work. Composer Ludovico Einaudi’s pensive piano solos and violin duets enhance scenes such as a wide shot of a lone van travelling on an endless, rolling highway or a long take tracking Fern as she walks ponderously in a seemingly soulless RV parking lot. In another memorable shot, Fern sits alone at the bottom of a mountain of harvested sugar beet, dim in contrast with a ray of sunlight breaking through a dark cloud in the distance. Zhao’s style is evocative but accepting. Nomadland is an exquisite gem of filmmaking.
Diana Cheng (@Arti_Ripples) is film and arts writer for Asian American Press and the founder of the blog Ripple Effects (rippleeffects.reviews), where she, Arti, has reviewed books and films for over 10 years.