Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was one of the hottest tickets at Venice and Toronto this year. Screening on the last day of competition in Venice, it was certainly worth the wait.
Starring Frances McDormand as the nomad in question, we follow Fern as she wanders the American west, constantly uprooting herself as she follows seasonal work: packing for Amazon, picking beets, cleaning on campsites. The reason for her nomadic lifestyle is the death not just of her husband, but of her town (Empire, Nevada), which has ceased to exist following the closure of the town’s mine. The film opens with Fern locking her belongings in a storage unit, slamming shut her belongings and her painful memories.
Zhao’s film is based on Jessica Bruder’s book of the same name about the precarious lives of many older transient workers. As she has done in her previous two features, Zhao has incorporated non-professional actors into the film and allowed them to tell their own stories. We meet Bob Wells (who plays himself), a champion of RV living, and meet the travellers who are on the road either to escape inner demons (such as a war vet with PTSD) or who have lost everything due to the 2008 financial crash. This latter issue is emphasised when Fern makes a rare trip to visit her sister.
Linda May and Swankie are Fern’s firm friends, teaching her how to be safe and live well in her van. Swankie, in giving a speech about dying, exhorts Fern to live. These women are gracious and generous, as are many in this community. These scenes of the fellow nomads reminded me of Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, another film that looks at someone trying to live a new and unconventional life after suffering trauma.
As Fern, McDormand is a rock. While warm and friendly, she is fiercely independent and when there is a whiff of romance, courtesy of Dave (David Strathairn), we see her visibly stiffen. Strathairn is always such a sympathetic actor and here he is perfect as the man who softens Fern’s sharper edges. McDormand is superb as Fern. She had the tricky task of interweaving Fern’s story with those of the real-life travellers, and she conveys her respect and admiration for them. We see Fern learning how to fix punctures, out on the town dancing, holding a snake in a petting zoo. It is the relationship that McDormand/Fern forges with her fellow nomads that makes this film so watchable, the line separating actor from character blurring.
Music plays a big part: we watch a ravaged performer singing “help me smile away the tears” and hear Frankie Laine crooning “in my sorrow I turn to you” on the van radio. There is a beautiful score by Ludovico Einaudi that complements the sweeping vistas of the vast open spaces that Fern encounters on her journeys. As in Zhao’s previous films, her rapport with the natural world and the American landscape penetrates the film, becoming a central protagonist in the story.
It is when we are away from the real-life nomads that the film loses its way a little, but only briefly. Zhao has created a eulogy for a group of people who are often unseen and unheard. She shows the pride and honour of being a member of this nomadic community – as Fern puts it, “I’m not homeless; I’m houseless. Not the same thing”. And while the life seems lonely or rootless to us on the outside, Zhao shows how friendships are forged and camaraderie prevails. It is a film that shines a light on the hidden lives of the transient middle-aged underbelly in the US and it confers dignity to this resilient community of silver-haired vagabonds.