As much about those she encounters as it is Frances McDormand's Fern, ChloĆ© Zhao's Nomadland chronicles a year in the life of a woman whose world is dying and her journey to discover a new one. McDormand's performance is as reassuring as ever, but its these portraits Zhao paints of those the grind has forgotten that give the film a sense of hope without ever romanticizing its notions. In fact, everything about Zhao's latest is as authentic as one would expect if familiar with the filmmaker's previous features in Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider. While most will know Zhao's name soon enough for directing Marvel's The Eternals it is her documentary-like approach to fictional material that will seemingly carry over no matter the brand she applies it to. This stylistic approach is one that requires a certain level of patience and attention, but as with most things that are worth investing time and effort in if one is able to give those things over to the film completely what it delivers is more than a rewarding experience - it's a stunningly cathartic one. Such praise is heaped upon the film with caution, mind you, as Nomadland is also a film about both everything and nothing. It's a movie difficult to describe to people in terms of why it carries the weight it does as it would appear to be little more than a road movie from the outside looking in. This is a movie in which we see Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand play a character who goes from one job to the next, living out of her van, while allowing the third act of her life to be shaped by those she meets along the way. If this were a traditionally structured movie it would undoubtedly include some tangible goal McDormand's Fern was chasing and must reach before a certain deadline or a certain destination that holds the resolve to all her earthly issues she attempts to deal with while on her journey, but Nomadland has no such structure. If Zhao's style and approach are distinctive for nothing else it is actually the complete lack of structure her films exhibit. It is because of this abandonment of design though, that the film is able to capture the loneliness of the world without much dialogue, it is through this that it provides the audience with an exploration they themselves might be craving around who we are and what the point of all this might be while reminding us of how good we can be, need to be, and must be to one another while we're still here.
Fern (Frances McDormand) finds herself lost in Chloe Zhao's Nomadland as she searches for something she can't define.
© 2020 Searchlight Pictures

Did you know ferns constitute the largest living group of primitive vascular plants with over 10,000 species? That sad excuse for an analogical segue is to point out the key word "primitive". Much like the species of plant with which our protagonist shares her name, it would seem the largest group of people in the United States have more in common with the quality or style of life that offers an extremely basic level of comfort and convenience than they do with those we typically see in the movies. Fern isn't necessarily meant to be an "every(wo)man", but she is and Zhao's film while not necessarily concentrated on being about any one thing in particular ultimately comes to be about the double-edged sword Fern faces as her options are as wide as the landscapes in front of her yet that freedom could just as easily lead to independence as it could absolute isolation and the aforementioned loneliness. Nomadland is set in the real-life town of Empire, Nevada where we are to understand that Fern had more or less resigned most of her life to. This town is essentially wiped off the map six months after the gypsum mine - the staple of the town's economy - closes its doors. Fern along with her husband and the majority of Empire's small population were given nowhere to go with the zip code being eliminated in that six months following the plants closure. We are introduced to McDormand's character in the aftermath of this dissolution, after the death of her husband, and as she's coming to the end of her seasonal employment at an Amazon center where we begin to become immersed in the modern state of Fern's life. Fern has begun living in her van (which she naturally named Vanguard) and prefers being called "houseless" as opposed to "homeless". It is worth noting too that Fern is beginning to invest large parts of her time, effort, and headspace into the design of her new home as well; it's a safe space - maybe the first space she's felt genuinely safe in since everything in her life suddenly changed. Fern remains close with what is assumed to be another Empire native and longtime friend in Linda (Linda May) who also works for Amazon during the holiday season, but who encourages Fern to join her once their stint is over as she's become involved with a group of "nomads". These wanderers have formed makeshift communities for themselves and fellow souls like Fern where comfort and companionship in the hollowed out days that follow life's objectives having all either been accomplished or given up on can be found. It is on Fern's journey that she discovers or at least finds both clarity and sometimes more confusion in things she thought she'd figured out, but whether alone or in good company, she can't help but to keep moving.

It is 2011 when Nomadland begins as Fern and her world are just beginning to step out from the shadow cast by the great recession of 2008. Fern states very early on that she likes work, that she needs it, as if it allows her to be able to pace herself in life and/or maintain a type of internal balance. That said, Zhao - who also wrote the screenplay adapted from Jessica Bruder's 2017 novel - is keen to emphasize just how much this internal balance has been pushed to the edge with the loss of her husband, her town, and her village of friends. Fern doesn't know exactly what she needs to do in order to begin to feel like she's piecing her life back together, but she knows something feels right about being in the company of this band of gypsies she's landed among. Speaking of those Fern finds herself among, while Zhao's filmmaking language skewers more documentary than feature narrative what adds to this illusion if you will, is that the director also largely uses "non-actors" to make up her cast. In fact, besides McDormand and David Strathairn the rest of this cast was chosen as the locations were. In all honesty, McDormand is the first real "name" Zhao has used to anchor one of her films. Furthermore, Zhao has stated that it was important for the cast to be selected as the locations were being chosen and that the script not be locked until the final day of shooting so that the film would actually be a genuine representation of these areas. This may lead one to question why Zhao might even shift the narrative into the fictional world if she was willing to go to such lengths in order to ensure authenticity instead of just making a documentary. First and foremost, Zhao is being honest with herself about documentary filmmaking and the more incendiary aspects that can be exposed by filmmakers if they want to use the art form to tell the story they want to tell rather than that of their subjects, but in shifting something like Nomadland to the realm of fiction it actually allows for more openness among the non-actors as well as in the screenwriting process. The people we see on screen aren't necessarily playing themselves, but obviously versions of themselves that they wish they could or might hope to be one day. Essentially, Zhao is offering the opportunity for these people to be braver than they might have ever had to be by being as honest with themselves about who they truly are or who they've become by committing that to camera. It's an exercise that elicits this desired truth more often than not, but it also drives home the overall and surprisingly simple thesis of the film in that it reminds us of our own humanity and how little the minutiae matters when the biggest threat is division itself. The main and maybe only detractor to this decision is how often the score, taken from composer Ludovico Einaudi's album Seven Days Walking, is utilized; it's undeniably beautiful, but maybe a little too much and a little too on the nose for some of the more authentic moments the film conveys.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland.
© 2020 Searchlight Pictures

This brings us around to trying to decipher how the film creates this sense of grand discussion and deep reflection while appearing to be as mundane an artistic endeavor as the people it chronicles. One of the greatest instances of this and a scene that wholly encompasses how the film not only functions, but views itself is when Fern attends a tour in one of the state or national parks that her journey takes her on. The tour guide is talking about stars that blew up eons ago whose matter landed on our planet and is now a part of the beings that inhabit it; how the remnants of these cosmic objects are essentially now a part of us. Zhao cuts from this existential moment to Fern cleaning a restaurant where I imagine one contemplates not what exists beyond the stars or what the origins of man are, but more how they're going to get the grease off the floor. This juxtaposition of infinite potential and how such reductive tasks can make ones capabilities feel minuscule emphasizes the consistent theme of reflection Zhao is keen on examining. There is little talk of legacy and what individuals will be remembered for and more talk around how the characters in question have satisfied their own time. Did they die with their sailboat still parked in the driveway as one character likened it? Fern in particular wonders if she spent too much of her time remembering rather than taking in the present and if that time was wasted by not making an even larger pool of memories for her to reflect on now that those most critical to making those memories are no longer around to create new ones. It's almost as if living in her van and not allowing herself to get too close to others or enjoy said company of another, namely fellow nomad Dave (Strathairn), is penance for these shortcomings, these regrets, these things she failed to realize earlier in her life. It's easy to imagine all the stories Fern could share as McDormand sports a scruffy-haired//weathered look here that adds to the credibility the "layears" on her face tells us she's lived. 

In short, Nomadland is a collection of portraits of people who have found themselves on the fringes of society, that have fallen out of the cycle our structured existence promotes and now has no use for. Key among these figures is a woman Fern befriends by the name of Swankie (as played by non-actor Charlene Swankie) who Zhao undoubtedly viewed as a gift from God as not only does Charlene deliver an astounding performance, but the character of Swankie becomes the backbone of the newfound influence and encouragement Fern was seeking. There is a single scene in particular with Swankie that deals in the smaller moments of life that we come to appreciate not only for their beauty or inspiration, but largely for the type of impact they leave on us that triggered a gut reaction of sadness for reasons I'm not sure I can fully explain or even comprehend. Whether it be restoring balance, finding peace in the past and being able to muster some optimism for the future, or finding excuses to try and figure out who we are and what the point of all this is Nomadland analyzes and accomplishes all these things in a staggeringly subtle exploration that manages to leave a profound impact.    

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