When it comes to name recognition, it seems like the third time is definitely the charm for director Chloe Zhao.
While I have yet to see her debut film (2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me), I did manage to see her second film, The Rider (2017), the story of a young cowboy recovering from a near fatal accident and needing to find a new path in life. It takes more than one movie or so to discover a director’s true voice, but Zhao certainly is going down the path of intimate film making (it also helps that her first two movies were written by Zhao), which is more than evident in her third feature Nomadland.
Based off the book by Jessica Bruder (who shares writing credits with Zhao), Nomadland centers on Fern (Frances Mcdormand). Once a part of the small town of Empire, Nevada, she is forced to live in her car after the town closes in 2011 due to the economy. When a friend’s daughter asks her if she is homeless, she responds, “No, I am houseless.” She manages to work seasonal jobs, including in an Amazon warehouse. Eventually, a friend convinces her to join a group of Nomads led by Bob Wells. We see her interactions with many others, including David (the always reliable David Strathairn, who is the only other actor I recognized besides Mcdormand).
The plot of the film is more about Fern’s experiences than what happens to her. Of course, it is not to say nothing happens to her at all, but we revel more at how she reacts to each person and event that she encounters. This, of course, is all the more effective because of two time Oscar winner Frances McDormand. Another nomination is in her future for this role, and it won’t be hard to see why. She portrays another character that we are thinking about days after seeing the film. In a sense, Fern is like her Marge Gunderson in Fargo, in that she is someone you would like to have in your life in one way or another (as opposed to her Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, who would be a bit scary to have in your life if you were not on her good side).
Parents, the film is rated R for one scene in particular, in which Fern is seen floating nude in a pond. This lasts about 10-15 seconds. The swearing is evident as well, though I don’t remember hearing any F bombs. Still, I would say the R rating is justified, so High School and above.
I mentioned how director Chloe Zhao (who also did the editing for the film) was a much more intimate and personal form of story teller (which makes me more curious about her next film, Eternals, for the MCU). I had a feeling that Zhao used mostly real life Nomads (including Bob Wells), and the credits proved me right. I can only imagine how much of directing is needed to help people play themselves when they have never acted before. The intimacy that Zhao goes for also results in the film being nothing short of gorgeous to look at.
This is one of those films where a casual movie goer would be wanting to say that it is “too slow” or “does not go anywhere”. There is always a difference between going too slow and being at the right pace, and Nomadland is easily in the latter category. It takes its time and never rushes at all. It demands the viewer to be patient, and lets the viewer know that sometimes, movies are better run as a marathon and not a spring.
I was fortunate enough to see the film in theaters, but it will be streaming very soon on Hulu. Here is to hoping you get to experience this remarkable film down the road.