What’s new, folks? For the longest time I’ve dreamed of getting an RV. Something I often did when I was little was flip through my second and third editions of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to RVing, a book that fueled the flames for my wide-eyed adoration of life on the road and traveling to any countrywide destination (Legoland California remains unchecked at the top of my list) in an RV. I even went so far as to occasionally fantasize at times what it might be like to cast off the security and comfort of my home in favor of an indefinitely peripatetic way of living akin to the one that Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty’s yuppie couple aim for in the 1985 comedy Lost in America. I didn’t realize, however, how fortunate my household was to be able to voluntarily decide its future—a privilege that an increasing number of downtrodden Americans lack when they’re discarded by our economic environment.
That’s what drew me to Nomadland—both the 2020 film directed, written, and edited by Chloé Zhao, and journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book from which it was adapted. The movie had gone on my watchlist once it started garnering buzz last year, although it was hard for mass audiences to easily access it until it began streaming on Hulu on February 19. Before watching it, I read the book first, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a palpable and enlightening look at workampers, the self-sufficient and optimistic nomads who live out of “wheel estate”—a nickname for RVs, travel trailers, cars, and converted vans that have been crafted into unconventional homes—while picking up seasonal jobs at park campgrounds, Amazon warehouses, and sugar beet fields.
I’m happy to be able to praise the film as well. Under Zhao’s masterful oversight, it fleshes out the lifestyle of low-income elderly Americans who have been forced to hit the road in the face of the Great Recession, forming deeply personal communities with other roaming retirees and vehemently fighting the stigma with which society saddles them by calling themselves “houseless” rather than “homeless.” Nomadlandcarries this out by following a woman named Fern (played by Frances McDormand) who lives in Empire, Nevada, a company town owned by a gypsum mine that employed her late husband. When the mine shuts down, so does the town, displacing all its residents and leaving Fern to join the migrant tribe in her van.
The movie’s greatest advantage is the purely slice-of-life lens it targets on the eponymous rovers. Doing away with standard plot structure, the narrative, which is set between late 2011 and early 2013, unfurls with an organic and quiet intimacy that impresses on you a deep sense of authenticity. In addition, it succeeds at establishing an unbiased standpoint from which to examine the story. It never feels as if Zhao is using this as an incessantly dour and heavy-handed piece to warn her audience against becoming nomads themselves, and it also never feels as if she sugarcoats things and exhorts us to ditch our traditional houses in favor of wheel estate. I know it’s easy for some viewers to glance at an arthouse picture like this and dismiss it as an interminable snoozefest, but there’s a major difference between movies that are contemplative and deliberately paced and movies that are just plain boring. Even with the few moments where it does wander off, Nomadland falls in the former category. Perfectly complementing the film is the inclusion of a few pensive piano pieces from Ludovico Einaudi, who I often put on in the background when I’m writing.
It’s massively impressive to watch Zhao wield the camera so deftly for her third feature, especially when you consider that she handled editing on top of directing and screenwriting. Her cinematography captures some of the most gorgeous shots I’ve ever seen of the American West’s austere deserts and muted purple skies. I haven’t seen her previous movies yet, but from what I’ve heard, she displayed as much talent in Songs My Brothers Taught Me, her 2016 debut about the dynamic between a brother and a sister living in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and The Rider, her 2018 sophomore about a rodeo cowboy in a South Dakota reservation as he undergoes an identity crisis in the wake of a head injury. I’m eager to see what she can do as the director of The Eternals, the upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe entry she had to carve out time to film while shooting Nomadland in seven states over the fall of 2018. I hope the studio will be wise enough to give her the freedom to let her individual voice shine through the way they did for James Gunn in Guardians of the Galaxy, Ryan Coogler in Black Panther, and Taika Waititi in Thor: Ragnarok.
McDormand gives a headturner of a performance as Fern, a tenacious and stoic woman who pursues her life on the move against the well-intentioned concerns of her friends and family. Because she maintains an amiable but cool distance between herself and others, it can be initially challenging to relate to her. However, the substance of her character lies in her capacity for listening to people and absorbing their dialogue with placid empathy. The restrained role, which is one of the many nuanced touches in this film, easily qualifies two-time Oscar winner McDormand as a frontrunner for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.
Let’s not forget to commend David Strathairn for the understated presence he brings as a fellow vagabond into whom Fern bumps multiple times along the perpetual journey. I likewise appreciate the supporting roster’s ability to infuse the tale with startling sincerity. They actually consist of real-life nomads and locals, including a few whose accounts were included in Bruder’s book. Zhao’s earlier projects were filled with non-professional actors as well, so she’s quite experienced with eliciting the full potential from inexperienced talent. This is exemplified most clearly in the scenes that concentrate on one of the non-actors delivering a touching monologue opposite a taciturn McDormand.
Some viewers have come down on Nomadland for missing the chance to grill Amazon over its backbreaking labor policies (they’re definitely not looking great after all the kerfuffle around their employees having to use bags and water bottles as makeshift bathrooms). If you want to inform yourself on the exhausting conditions faced by Amazon workers, Bruder’s book is the way to go. Personally, I don’t think it was Zhao’s goal to present a blistering interrogation of the e-commerce giant, which she uses as a minor instrument to convey Fern’s journey. What seems much more relevant to the movie than launching into a march of anticapitalist commentary is its exploration of human connection and human resolution—our desire to bond with strangers for support and socialization and our knack for sustaining a keep-truckin’-on attitude in arduous times.
Nomadland has snagged numerous accolades by now, including Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director at the 78th Golden Globes. Zhao is the second woman and the first Asian woman to win the latter award. As for the Oscars, Zhao has already made history as the first Asian woman and the first woman of color to be nominated for Best Director; the third person and the first woman to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Film Editing in a single year; and the ninth person and the first woman to be nominated for editing a movie they also directed. On top of this, Zhao being nominated for Best Director alongside Lee Isaac Chung for Minari sets this apart as the first time that two East Asian directors have been nominated in the same year, and Zhao being nominated alongside Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman marks the first time that two female directors have been nominated in the same year. Don’t be surprised if Nomadland sweeps the Oscars.
Films as independent as Nomadlandcan be difficult for general audiences to get a hold of, so I’m very glad that it can be seen on a platform as mainstream as Hulu. I wish more of these movies could go to streaming this way. Hopefully, it will also encourage people to pick up the book and learn even more about the remarkable world of nomads and workampers.
All my love and prayers go to you, folks. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 95/100