In December 2010, the residents of the mining town, Empire Nevada, were given till June to find a new residence amid a recession. The zip code 89405 ceases to exist, and this is where Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland begins.
Based on the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Frances McDormand plays Fern, a world away from the last time we saw her as the fiery Mildred of Three Billboards. Fern has recently lost her husband, her home and community. She now lives out of a make-shift van with very few belongings, adopting a “nomadic” lifestyle, working part-time seasonally in various establishments. McDormand’s performance is quiet and introspective, mostly physical through a flick of the eye or the way she’ll retreat when there’s an opportunity to connect. Nomadland is a series of vignettes over the course of a year that all fit together to create a jigsaw of the enigma that is Fern.
Predominately comprised of real-life nomads, the cast breathes new energy into the film the way traditional actors could not – there is no gloss in Nomadland. Everyone looks like a real person, one you’d unassumingly cross paths with on the street. The colouring may often be bleak, but the vibrancy of everyone’s lived-in experience brings such a warmth that it
often feels like watching a documentary. Listening to the cast share anecdotes over the brief periods they spend together is so achingly beautiful. There are intimate friendships formed that only have a moment to shine before they individually head out on their respective expeditions. Although they are ultimately a community, throughout the year, there’ll be seasons spent apart as they work and travel. Zhao deserves the highest commendation for her ability to capture such palpable relationships between her ensemble cast, through the common connection of grief.
You have to allow yourself to get swept up by Nomadland as there’s no grand adventure or sign-posted climax, just precise understanding of how we ache for connection even in our darkest periods. Zhao’s script feels improvised, and it would be interesting to know how much if any is at all because it feels so precise in the way people interact. The conversations are not leading us to a grand revelation. Instead, they paint delicate portraits of the people whose lives we get to observe, and ultimately deeply care for, for 108-minutes.
“What’s remembered lives” is a quote Fern shares from her father deep into the third act – it feels like it encapsulates the entire film. It highlights the way we collect memories and moments that compose the score of our lives, and those moments lead us to a deeper understanding of the people whose paths we cross.
The score, the imagery, the gentle pacing, the devastating way McDormand dons a “happy new year” headband, there is so much to fall in love with. If Zhao is not in the conversation for everyone’s best director lists, it’ll be a wonder.