Nomadland is nearly guaranteed to win Best Picture in April, and will likely bring Chinese director Chloé Zhao the second of two consecutive Best Directors given to an Asian director, the first being Bong Joon-ho for last year’s groundbreaking Parasite. It’s the story of a widow who has lost her husband and the majority of her material possessions, and is now living in her van. But as she says, she is “houseless, not homeless.” That’s because she has outfitted the van as her home on wheels, and has pursued the life of a “nomad,” specifically meaning those that have chosen to travel from nomad event to nomad event, meeting other nomads, several of whom become friends.
It would be easy to say that the film is great because its central character is played by the great actress Frances McDormand (Oscars for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—but let’s not forget “Olive Kitteridge,” Almost Famous, Mississippi Burning, North Country, and Wonder Years.) She was a shoo-in for a third Oscar a few months ago, and that still may happen. If she hadn’t won recently for Three Billboards, she most certainly would win for Nomadland. But her recent win and the arrival of other great performances (specifically Andra Day for The United States v. Billie Holliday and Carrie Mulligan for Promising Young Woman) have put some doubts there. But if a non-histrionic performance that still dominates the film is to your taste (which it should be), this is a film to visit.
As strong, layered, and complex as the central performance is, the film is much more than that. It’s a generally clear-eyed look at a life and community unknown to most of us, and it’s done without condescension or elevation. McDormand and supporting player David Strathairn are the only professional actors, and many of the nomads play themselves—beautifully. McDormand has the central role, but she blends in well with her surroundings and the life her character is living. She looks and genuinely acts like a hard-working, self-contained woman. Straitairn, an actor I respect, is a bit problematic, but more on that later.
The film itself is generally understated, and only occasionally self-conscious. The film doesn’t pretend to be A Grand Statement about anything, but is nonetheless beautiful to look at and moving in its presentation (as opposed to an examination) of small moments. Nomadland could be read as a socio/political commentary, and for those limited by always looking for that perspective, I suppose you can find what you’re looking for here. But you’d be missing the joy and beauty of individual humanity, of warm but clear recollection, of lives lived in a certain kind of freedom that most of us eschew. That freedom is chosen and thrust upon the folks here in an uneven manner, and that tension is part of what makes this such a rich film.
Director Zhao is also the screenwriter and editor as well as one of the producers. She has been able to tenderly and rigorously observe an American subculture in a way that perhaps only a foreigner can do. This is a uniquely American world here, with little to no Hollywood gloss or rhythm. It’s roughly beautiful to look at, accounting for its nomination for Best Cinematography. But what it draws the viewer into the film is not a performance, or its photography, or story that pulls the viewer into a typical three-act story. It asks, but doesn’t demand, that you accept the film in the same way that Fern (McDormand) accepts the realities of her life and the others accept their own chosen pathways and its ups and downs.
Perhaps the only false stitch in the fabric of the film is Dave, played by the very American actor David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), who, like Stanley Tucci, generally adds to any film of which he is a part. There is no faulting his performance, which is real and deep. It’s just the fact that he is an ACTOR in a film of mostly non-actors, and is playing against a great American actress who disappears into her part, leaving him the sole obvious ACTOR in the mix. Then (spoiler alert) there is the problem of a possible romance with Fern, and a journey into Dave’s story, which is less interesting if more fleshed out than Fern’s own tale, which is intriguingly shrouded in mist and mystery, and only revealed, if the details are even important at all, in bits and pieces. Dave’s journey is a side trip that is somewhat satisfying in and of itself, but pulls away from the main part of film even as it provides something of a thought-provoking contrast with Fern and her decisions.
For most of us, director Zhao has appeared from virtually nowhere. Her previous films, all independent as is Nomadland, were 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2017’s The Rider, which both address cowboys and Native Americans in a way that John Ford or John Wayne would never have recognized. This Beijing-born multi-hyphenate is just 39 years old, and is already on her way to becoming a great American director, in that she is already a significant contributor to seeing America on film.
Note: While this is generally a must-see film, please note that for those who might be offended, there is a completely asexual short scene of full-frontal female nudity. It’s nearly gratuitous, but there is narrative sense to the scene. It could have been shot in any other numbers of ways, but hey, I’m not the sure-to-be-Oscar-winning director.