If Chloé Zhao’s acclaimed Nomadland were a song, it would be written by Bruce Springsteen. Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 bestseller, the Oscar favourite is an old-fashioned road movie, stuffed with semi-socialist rhetoric and quiet contemplation on the American soul. All things we’ve come to expect from the Boss’s widescreen tales of heartland life.
It is 2011 and the closure of the sheetrock plant in Empire, rural Nevada, has upended the peaceful existence of sweet-natured widower Fern (Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Fargo). Like many, she depended upon the plant for her livelihood. Now, jobless and husband-less, she must face a new and uncertain future alone.
“I’m houseless, not homeless — they’re not the same thing,” she assures a friend’s daughter in the hardware store. It’s a bid to escape the shame of poverty as neighbourhood gossip about Fern sleeping in her campervan intensifies, but soon the cheerful boomer embraces her situation. Prompted by a sudden realisation, she joins a band of local nomads and finds she enjoys their itinerant customs.
Writer-director Zhao paints the contours of a forgotten America with evocative strokes. Much like her recent drama The Rider, she finds romance in weatherbeaten landscapes and moody sunrises – but also in the quirky characters Fern meets along her journey. From joyous campfire singalongs to moving confessionals with strangers while huddled up in the RV, her experiences serve as a constant reminder of the things that really matter, away from the capitalist merry-go-round we call society.
Fern’s decision demands a succession of temporary, often seasonal, jobs that provide scant income and little-to-no security—including a stint at Amazon’s ‘CamperForce’ scheme which provides workload relief during increased ordering times (McDormand undertook a real-life placement for research). A platonic relationship with fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn) soon develops, but any hint of romance is handled smartly by Zhao’s absorbing, unconventional narrative.
Zhao’s next step will be helming Marvel’s superhero epic Eternals – due in November – and that will no doubt be a more frenetic undertaking. This time, however, she’s turned in a gentle film in the vein of About Schmidt and Into The Wild. Those indie favourites leant heavily on weighty performances from powerhouse leads (Emile Hirsch and Jack Nicholson respectively) – and Nomadland boasts a similarly impressive turn from McDormand, who is on career-best form. Those who have suffered loss will draw much comfort from her strong-willed, optimistic Fern – a perfect match for this deeply compassionate look into the sunset. Bruce would certainly approve.
- Director: Chloé Zhao
- Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
- Release date: April 30 (Disney+)