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Hit the road with ‘Nomadland’

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It’s always intriguing to watch a movie that blurs the lines between fiction and truth. Now, I’m not talking about “based on” or “inspired by” films – though one could argue that they partake in their own line blurring – but rather films that fold together the real and the fictional. Films that evoke that cinema verité vibe without being true documentaries.

That sort of vague and vaguely-explained categorization – it’s tough to articulate, but you know it when you see it – precisely and perfectly encapsulates Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland.” The film – written, directed, edited and produced by Zhao – is adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.”

It’s a story about the road-roaming lifestyle adopted by an increasing number of people – older, middle-class folks – who have been forced out of their homes and into a nomadic lifestyle by the unfortunate realities of late-stage capitalism. The companies for whom they spent years working are gone, their homes and savings destroyed by the mortgage and banking crises. To survive, they move into vans and RVs and follow seasonal work – Amazon distribution centers and campgrounds and national parks and the like – gradually becoming part of the ever-growing subculture.

It also – aside from a pair of incredible actors (Frances McDormand and David Strathairn) at its center – is populated almost wholly by people playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, actual livers of the nomadic lifestyle.

That bringing together of the fictional and the factual is what pushes Zhao’s film into the realm of greatness, an intimate epic of the American west as experienced by those who have been left behind by one or more of this country’s 21st century economic collapses and rebirths. It is quiet and expansive all at once, a film enamored of the broad openness of the landscape while gently acknowledging how easy it is for individual lives to get lost in the vastness that is America.

Fern (Frances McDormand, TV’s “Good Omens”) spent much of her life living and working the small company town of Empire in Nevada. After the passing of her husband and the closing of the U.S. Gypsum plant that allowed the town to survive, she opts to rid herself of the majority of her belongings and take to the road, living in her van and following seasonal work from place to place.

She’s hardly alone – there’s a whole subculture of people living the same life. A lot of them are much like her, dealing with the loss of jobs, homes, spouses, the works. Older folks, formerly middle class, who find themselves in limbo and hence drawn to the transient lifestyle.

Fern’s a loner, but she gradually starts making friends among the folks she encounters and reencounters along the way. One of the first is Linda May, a kind older woman who shows Fern the ropes a little bit early on. It is Linda’s encouragement that leads Fern to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual desert meetup of these vehicular nomads organized by a gentleman by the name of Bob Wells, who devotes his time and energy to supporting and helping his fellow transients through community building and other practices.

It’s at RTR that she meets some other folks who will move in and out of her life. Swankie, for instance, a road warrior whose bristly nature covers a heart of gold – she chastises Fern for lack of preparedness even as she helps fix the situation. And then there’s Dave (David Strathairn, “Walkaway Joe”), a gentleman who she encounters repeatedly at various campsites and parking lots; he clearly digs her, but she’s still content with the solitude the life provides her.

And … that’s kind of it. We follow Fern around over the course of months, traveling with her as she picks up seasonal work at Amazon distribution centers or joins the cleanup crew at a popular RV campground or does maintenance at a national park visitor center or hits up the beet harvest. And all the while, she’s quietly living in her van (she’s named it Vanguard), existing in a constant state of transition. It’s when opportunities to end her nomadic lifestyle arise that she’s left to consider just what kind of life she wants. Is she a nomad because she has to be? Or because she wants to be?

“Nomadland” is a masterpiece, okay? Let’s just get that out of the way now. This is an exceptional movie, easily one of the best of the (admittedly still young) 2020s. The film is a rare combination of technical skill, creative vigor and experimental verve. You just don’t get movies like this one very often; it is a gift for which any cinephile should be grateful. It’s the kind of movie that reminds me of how lucky I am to do what I do for a living.

It is flat-out astonishing that this is just the third feature-length effort from Chloe Zhao. The delicate touch and aesthetic acumen on display utterly transcends her experience. There are people who spend decades in the business making films that receive acclaim and awards – talented, driven people – who never come close to an achievement like this one. She is a generational talent, one whose work we can look forward to for years to come.

(I find it both incredibly weird and incredibly exciting that Zhao’s next project is an MCU movie – “Eternals” – that will likely land sometime later this year, fingers crossed. Your feelings about young auteurs being given the keys to franchise films may be mixed, but having a director this young and talented – a female director, no less – can only benefit the MCU writ large.)

Zhao captures the haunting emptiness of the American west in a way that is both beautiful and vaguely sad; it’s a reflection of the hole so many are seeking to fill. Creating a film that feels so epic in scale while remaining so insular and intimate – it’s like, how is that even possible? And yet here we are, thanks to Chloe Zhao.

All this, plus you’re talking about a film populated almost entirely by non-actors, people who actually live this nomadic lifestyle and are playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It’s an incredibly bold play by Zhao, a legit flex – and an unbelievably effective one. These people – again, real people – are enchanting. So often, the gap between actor and non-actor in these sorts of verité-adjacent efforts is too wide to cross, leaving the result uneven. That never happens here. Never. That honestly might be the most impressive thing about the whole film.

Unless the most impressive thing about the film is Frances McDormand, because holy s—t is she outstanding in this. McDormand is one of our best – a two-time Oscar winner, with two Emmys and a Tony to boot. And yet – this might be the best work that she’s ever done. To be this captivating with such an interior performance is simply incredible. She radiates emotion, able to evoke feeling despite long stretches where she rarely speaks. Not just that, but her generosity as a performer engages and elevates those around her; she anchors these scenes, serving to give her partners – particularly the non-actors – an opportunity to shine. They exist as they are and McDormand holds them up, reflecting the sun.

Oh, and Strathairn is great as well, in his usual understated way. He does a lot with a little, providing the foil that Fern needs even as his David seems content to simply be. There’s a low-key charm to him that only serves to enhance the quiet chemistry between himself and McDormand.

“Nomadland” is great. GREAT. It is an earnest, honest film that exquisitely captures an American moment and the people who are doing their best to live through it. It is a film that sympathizes but never pities. A film that champions but never idolizes. Unfailingly genuine and packed with truth, it is a masterful work from a masterful talent.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 24 February 2021 13:33

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