“Nomadland” is about the past and the future, about the lucky and the luckless. Starring Frances McDormand, “Nomadland” has garnered awards for director Chloé Zhao and three Golden Globe nominations. The film blends realism with fiction by featuring real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as mentors and comrades for McDormand’s widowed Fern.
The Rise of Auteur Chloé Zhao
Writer-director Zhao was already marked as a rising auteur with her first feature film, the 2015 “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” that looked at life amongst a blended family on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The film was nominated for a Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and for Best First Feature, Best Cinematography and Someone to Watch Award at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Her second film, the 2017 “The Rider,” was also about Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation and used untrained actors to tell a story that was partially based on reality. Lakota Sioux rodeo rider Brady Jandreau met Zhao and when he suffered a catastrophic accident, Zhao wrote a film around him, looking at disability and broken dreams. Jandreau and his family were asked to play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. The result was a sensitive film that asked nagging questions about Native Americans and about disability.
“The Rider” was nominated for Best Feature, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Cinematography at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. It won the Best Feature at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and was in the Top Ten Independent Films of the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics gave it Best Picture.
Zhao’s third feature, “Nomadland,” is, like “The Rider,” based on reality, but takes another person’s research and writing as the basis for its story. Journalist Jessica Bruder wrote a non-fiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” looking at older American workers driving around the country, searching for seasonal employment. They are a different kind of migrant workers, many adversely affected by the Great Recession (2007-2009).
The real city of Empire was founded in 1923 as a tent city formed by miners. By 1948, US Gypsum owned the town. At its largest, the population was 750 in the early 1960s. The gypsum plant closed on 31 January 2011, eliminating 95 jobs. Residents with children were allowed to remain in the company homes until the end of the school year (20 June 2011). After which, Empire became a ghost town. Its ZIP Code (89405) was discontinued. In 2016, the city became the property of Empire Mining Co. In 2017, the population was 217.
In the film “Nomadland,” after Fern loses her job in 2011, she decides to sell most of her possessions, buy a van and take to the road to search for work. One of those jobs is seasonal work at an Amazon fulfillment center. There, a co-worker, Linda, invites her to a desert winter gathering organized by Bob Wells. Wells instructs on how to live comfortably in a van and helps build a community and support system amongst the nomads.
Wells describes this life as:
One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. 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”. And I do. And whether it’s a month, or a year, or sometimes years, I see them again.
While there is hardship, there is also a sense of freedom. Even when offered the possibility of a family with a fellow nomad, David (David Strathairn), and a long-term stay somewhere, Fern feels the pull of the road.
Zhao doesn’t provide easy answers. Van life isn’t romanticized with cute vans and happy endings. The cost of living is a constant worry as is the weather. Vans breakdown and so do people’s bodies.
Rockhounds might fondly look at the stint Fern has in Quartzite where nomads meet with a different level of nomad ways. Fern and her fellow nomads marvel at the luxury of expensive and roomy campers and RVs.
The some of the cast and crew, including Zhao who also edited the film and Oscar-winner McDormand, lived in vans during the filming. You can feel the authenticity through how the actors and real nomads move in their environment. The film also reveals need for the warmth of human connections in contrast to the coldness of corporate America and the no-strings attached gig economy.
Already, Zhao has won the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award, the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion Award, the Coronado Island Film Festival’s Leonard Maltin Tribute Award, the San Diego International Film Festival’s Audience Choice Gala, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Director, the Chicago Film Critics Association’s awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography) and Gotham Independent Film Award’s Best Feature Award.
“Nomadland” has been nominated for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, Best Screenplay and Best Director Golden Globes. That’s an amazing achievement for Zhao and it’s unfortunate that it isn’t more celebrated. The Oscar buzz is also there.
During these COVID-19 times, undoubtedly more people will be losing their businesses, their jobs and their homes. Once restrictions lift, one can’t help but wonder if there will be more wandering souls, living out of their cars, picking up one short-term work assignment after another in a gig economy that doesn’t offer permanence, in a country where with a partially dismantled national healthcare, most people are just a medical emergency away from bankruptcy.
“Nomadland” will be released in theaters and to stream on Hulu on 19 February 2020.