TIFF ’20 — Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ is a Sweet and Tender Look at Life as a Modern-Day Nomad in the American West

A still from 'Nomadland'. Frances McDormand stands in the centre frame, in profile against a backdrop of rocky mountains and bushland. She has short dark cropped hair and a blue hoodie with a dark green denim jacket over the top.
Searchlight Pictures

Chloé Zhao is undoubtedly one of the most vital directors in American cinema. With only a handful of films under her belt, she has shown her interest and appreciation for small personal stories set against the backdrop of American life. 

Her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, is a Indigenous American drama that explores the bond between a Lakota Sioux brother and his younger sister. She followed that up with her contemporary western drama The Rider, which followed a Lakota Sioux man named Brady Jandreau after he suffers a brain injury in a rodeo accident. Now, Zhao has set her sights on telling a contemporary drama about the nomadic lifestyle in the American West.

In Nomadland, Zhao focuses on telling the story of a 21st-century American nomad through Frances McDormand’s fictional character Fern, a woman who has chosen to live a solitary life in her van and on the road. She has endured the loss of her husband and her town disappearing after an economic collapse and has resigned herself to living amongst a community of nomads.

Beautifully captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Nomadland tells the sweeping tale of resilience and healing as Fern navigates the highs and lows of her life as a nomad. Zhao, who not only directs but also wrote and edited the film, expertly balances telling a personal narrative through Fern and juxtaposing it with real-life nomads cast in the film. Zhao blends elements of narrative and documentary filmmaking which results in an immensely moving and rewarding journey.

A still from 'Nomadland'. Frances McDormand (chest up/center of frame) looking at the camera. She stands near rugged mountains in a rocky desert.
Searchlight Pictures

At the heart of Zhao’s film and McDormand’s performance, is capturing the power of hope and community in a time of crisis and great loss. Strangers who have been isolated for a variety of reasons find peace and harmony amongst themselves, but each are venturing down their own personal paths alone. They find a place of understanding and support despite it not being rooted in one place or another.

Material goods and the restrictive and harmful societal structures we have built are bound to crumble or fail certain people. However, human resilience is undeniably powerful and can withstand the greatest of losses. Nomadland teaches the audience to appreciate and understand that with great loss, peace can be found.

Nomadland is a tribute to those who take that leap of faith and detach themselves from parts of American civilisation that is bond to break us, and instead, fall back on our roots. Embrace the beauty of the unfolding road ahead of us and the natural world that is calling to us.

Nomadland screened at the Toronto International Film Festival after it’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures is distributing the film and it is expected to release on December 4, 2020.

by Ferdosa Abdi

Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020)On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.

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