Writer-director-editor Chloé Zhao’s genre experimentation within the poetic docudrama has come to technical fruition in Nomadland, elevating her to the master status of a realist auteur—her humane empathy for marginalised subjects shining through her now established authorship. This road trip film’s perfect narrative structure is simultaneously mobilised and anchored by Frances McDormand’s naturalistic performance as Fern, the nomad newbie protagonist. 

Upon Zhao’s signature belief in casting non-actors to play themselves in her reinventions of their real-life stories (Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider), Nomadland is comprised of Fern’s encounters, bondings and farewells with real-life nomads from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book—the film’s source material. Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ collective vision captures the warmth and melancholy of these convergences and departures—with free-flowing long takes and tracking shots that slide through the vast Americana landscapes, and the kinetic depths of earthy humanities within.

At the solitary intervals—between Fern’s wanderer friends coming and going—resides the dual force of Zhao’s spatially layered framing and McDormand’s concise, gritty performance that switches back and forth between angst and serendipity: her dotted along the Amazon factory’s metallic lines; her glimpsing through the van’s open door into the sunrise-tinted desert. In Nomadland, Zhao’s most intimate lamplit closeups—of McDormand’s rare hints of vulnerability—are reserved for Fern’s moments of solitude shuffling through photographs of her childhood, her husband who passed away, and her home.

Sweeping the top awards in the film festival circuit this year, Nomadland strikes a tender chord with every audience, subverting the common notion of “home” attached to a physical house and nuclear family in this uncommon time of illness, recession and loss. A timely tribute to forgotten Americans surviving the country’s structural failures, this film from a Chinese female director is more than worthy of making Oscar history. 

RATING: 5/5


INFORMATION

CAST: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells

DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao

WRITER: Chloé Zhao

SYNOPSIS: Having lost her lifelong hometown amidst corporate America’s economic ebbs and flows, an elderly widowed woman embarks on her nomadic western journey in a run-down van.