Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA/Germany, 2020. Cor Cordium Productions, Hear/Say Productions, Highwayman Films. Screenplay by Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder. Cinematography by Joshua James Richards. Produced by Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Chloé Zhao. Music by Ludovico Einaudi. Production Design by Joshua James Richards. Costume Design by Hannah Peterson. Film Editing by Chloé Zhao.
After her brilliant first feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me, in which she created a story set in a reservation using the stories and experiences (and in many cases the presence) of many its residents, followed by her having Brady Jandreau more or less play himself in The Rider, experimental filmmaker Chloe Zhao threatens to disappoint her fans with her third feature: it’s her first literary adaptation (adapting the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder) and features an Oscar-winning star, Frances McDormand. What’s next, Chloe, a romantic comedy? Well until then we have this beautiful exploration of one woman’s experience as a domestically rootless widow who, like many people with whom she has formed a community, lives out of her van. While her husband was still alive, they worked the gypsum mine of a Nevada company town that is now closed, the area a ghost town; there is a sense that McDormand’s now nomadic life is informed by fear and grief, but Zhao keeps a respectful distance, treating the downsides of the lifestyle (like having emergency diarrhea in a bucket) as necessary inconveniences for the things about it that are wonderful. McDormand travels a circuit up and down the country throughout the year, working a winter job at Amazon, traveling south to work at seasonal theme parks and restaurants and back again. Along the way she makes stops at encampments for other van dwellers, among whom she finds friends and support as she deals with occasional issues with her vehicle or simply needs company. She makes a promising connection with a fellow van owner (David Strathairn), who takes a chance on their sexy chemistry to invite her to stay with him when he leaves his peripatetic existence behind and to move in with his son after the birth of his granddaughter. The deal seems like a good one, but can our heroine resist the call of the open road, and more important, is the traveling something she wants or something she needs?
Movies are generally made for middle-class viewers, it’s the group that comprises the marketing focus of filmmakers and whose lifestyle is the one celebrated as aspirational in cinema, wealth is equated with corruption and poverty with misery. The most revolutionary thing about Zhao’s gorgeous movie is that she presents a lifestyle that is coded as poor but equates it, even at its worst, with freedom and experience, surrounding it with natural beauty at its best and quiet resilience at its worst. McDormand’s character may not have much more than necessities in that van, but she does get a glimpse of more different geological spots of America each year and a wider variety of new friends and kind strangers than most people take in in a lifetime. The people of Nomadland are not destitute, and they’re not there to teach us a lesson about privilege or injustice, and while they may not have steady homes they do have a sense of home. To balance out the modesty of their living accommodations they are rewarded with a sense of adventure, a constant change of location, various beautiful sites at different seasons of the year, and the variety of people in jobs that they work. One plot point challenges this notion, though, in one sequence McDormand’s van dies and she needs to borrow cash from her sister to get it back up and running; what happens to the person who is stuck in a field after everyone else has left and doesn’t have someone who can throw a few thousand bucks at the problem when they’re in a jam? Is there a point in this existence when you experience something that you cannot come back from, and is Zhao softening the reality a bit for us cushy middle class viewers after all, lulling us with a return to salt fields and wide open highways? Whether she is or not, this is a deeply satisfying viewing experience that fills you with a sense of peace, and promises that when Zhao does get around to either a romcom or maybe even a science-fiction adventure, she’ll bring to it the same level of curiosity and respect that she shows here.
Academy Awards: Best Picture; Best Actress (Frances McDormand); Best Director (Chloe Zhao)
Nominations: Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Adapted Screenplay
Golden Globe Awards: Best Picture-Drama; Best Director (Chloe Zhao)
Nominations: Best Actress-Drama (Frances McDormand); Best Screenplay
Screen Actors Guild Award Nomination: Best Female Actor (Frances McDormand)
Venice Film Festival Award: Golden Lion
Toronto International Film Festival: 2020