On the last day of February, filmmaker Chloé Zhao took home the Golden Globe awards for best director and best picture, marking the second time a female director had been honored. This came on the heels of continuous praise for her recent feature, Nomadland. Written and directed by Zhao, it is an adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s book of the same name. The film stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman whose recently adopted, transient lifestyle takes her around the West and Midwest. The character is inspired – and literally surrounded – by many real, older Americans who take up impermanent residencies and seasonal jobs as they travel around the country.
We meet Fern a few years after the Great Recession. She has recently lost her husband, job, house and town. Looking for an escape, she joins a group of nomads and van dwellers, traveling around in a van she names “Vanguard.” What follows is a story of travel marked by her relationships with friends, family, and her home(s).
After hearing so much about this film, I was excited to watch it. Going in, I expected it to be slow-paced and demanding of the audience’s attention. Midway through the movie, a non-van dweller comments, “I don’t know why anybody would wanna live here.” Similarly, one might question why anybody would want to watch a movie about these nomads; from an outsider’s perspective it might seem mundane, especially with its intermittent day-to-day plot. But the quiet performances and beautiful scenery captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards make for captivating and authentic storytelling.
The film is centered around the importance of human connection. The retirement-age nomads bond over loss, or impending loss, and their love of travel and nature. The topic of grief comes up multiple times, regarding people, places and times. However, the film does not indulge itself in this grief and the characters do not ask for your pity. It is incredibly compassionate, both in its performances and direction. McDormand delivers a subtle performance as a woman running away from grief. For many, the feeling of loss that Fern experienced a decade ago is especially resonate now.
“Characters” in Bruder’s book make appearances here as well; Charlene Swankie and Linda May, among others, play fictionalized versions of themselves. They work jobs at Amazon warehouses, roadside businesses, national parks or RV parks. They travel around deserts, forests and small towns, never permanently staying. And when not gathered at the RV rendezvous, Fern sees familiar faces show up along the road. The film was shot in several different states, starting in rural Nevada; some of my favorite scenes in the film take place in the Badlands.
The dialogue is so natural that it’s easy to forget some of the film is a work of fiction. Seeing that Frances McDormand and David Strathairn (as David) are two of the only professional actors in the film, and that Zhao chose to feature real nomads, it is very close to a documentary. Besides the fact that she is obviously a good actor, I was initially curious as to why Zhao cast McDormand, a well-known face, in this role. But despite her recognizability, McDormand embodies the character well.
Although I have yet to read Bruder’s book, I expect it to include more overt social commentary than its adaptation. The politics of the film are vague, and the effects of the 2008 recession are somewhat brushed over. As Fern has mixed feelings about David, audiences may be conflicted about these aspects of the film, as am I. However, I don’t think this detracts from the film’s main message. Of the films from this past year, this is the best one I have seen. McDormand turns in another touching and natural performance, while Zhao proves to be a director at the top of her game.
Toward the end of the film, in a conversation with known real-life van dweller Bob Wells, she is told: “You know, I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. I always just say ‘I’ll see you down the road.’” Fern may have lost her old life, but her new one is here to stay.