Chloé Zhao stuns with her 2020 film Nomadland starring Frances McDormand. The newly crowned Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival is based on a novel of the same name written by Jessica Bruder and follows the nomadic life of Fern, a recently widowed woman from a small town in rural Nevada. After the 2008 recession hit the city of Empire, Nevada pretty hardly, the population of that city were mostly forced to evacuate. This is how Fern finds herself living in her van and traveling through the US in pursuit of any work opportunity.
The film seems simple in premise, but what you think will be a slow study of the effects of capitalism on small towns and their people, actually turns out to be an intimate portrait of a character that so many will identify with. The film is heartbreaking and yet enlightening all the same. It shows the effects of the recession through a new community, through the lives of these nomadic people who have made a home for them on the road.
Throughout the story, we encounter different types of nomads, ones who have adopted this lifestyle by choice and those who only live this way because they have no other choice. This lifestyle can be very lonely, which is something this film doesn’t shy away from showing. The beauty of this film however is that is shows how people can find a sense of community in their loneliness, and thus can make it more bearable.
Throughout the film, we see Fern and her fellow nomads chasing odd jobs here and there in order to earn a living, since there are no long-term jobs available to them as a result of the recession. The odd job that Chloe Zhao brings the most attention to is the one in an Amazon warehouse. This is also perhaps Zhao’s way of exposing the way Amazon runs its business. Essentially, the multi-billion dollar enterprise pays these nomads’ trailer park fees and offers them a salary for a few weeks or months at a time. Once their contract is up, Fern and her fellow nomads drive off to their next location, in pursuit of their next paycheck.
What is most endearing about this film is how Zhao perfectly captures the spectrum of human emotion. She lets the audience in on a lifestyle that is so full of ups and downs and makes you feel it in all its glory. From one scene to the next, you go from being surrounded by people in conversation at high volumes, to then being alone with Fern walking or driving through a landscape with nothing but Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful score to fill your ears.
For full transparency, I wasn’t familiar with Chloe Zhao’s work before this film, but boy is she ever on my radar now! You get the sense that she truly understands the human experience and entices so many emotions out of her audience. You really feel for Fern, you get invested in the stories of the people she meets. You feel the joy and happiness in the sense of community that Fern finds, but you also feel the despair and melancholy she feels when those people leave and she is once again left on her own. Chloe Zhao not only directed this film, but she also wrote its screenplay and edited the film. As a viewer, you can tell that she understands this lifestyle and that she actually spent time with these nomads and cares about the story that she is putting out there.
Throughout the story, the question we keep asking ourselves is whether or not Fern chose this life or if she was forced into it due to lack of options. The question is left open even at the end of the film, but there are some clues throughout to help you form an opinion. In a scene where she visits her family, Fern’s sister makes a comment about how she is always leaving and constantly wants to be on her own. In contrast, in another scene, where Fern visits one of her nomad friends who has now adopted a more sedentary life, she is more at ease. Perhaps because she feels more understood and less judged by the people around her. Ultimately, she leaves there too, solidifying my opinion that Fern was always a nomad at heart.
All in all, this film will definitely make it to my favorites of the year and will garner its fair share of awards attention. Frances McDormand is a subtle, but powerful sensation and delivers one of her best performances. Chloe Zhao solidifies her name as one of the great directors. Ludovico Einaudi makes a statement and adds so much depth with his score. This one is definitely one to watch and I cannot wait to see it again.
See you down the road.