Chloe Zhoa is a master at capturing the intimate nature of the human story and experience set against the backdrop of the larger narrative of the natural landscape and world that affords these stories and experiences their sense of place and meaning. Having recently picked up and read the novel on which this film is based, the source material ends up providing Zhoa with an amazing opportunity to flex those imaginative and creative muscles. Her previous films incorporate a significant cast of non-actors, and in Nomadland she brings in characters who actually live the lifestyle that Nomadland is highlighting. This allows her to play around with that kind of raw, almost documentary like feel while telling the story she wants to tell with this inspired adaptation, something she does with casting McDormand as the lead. She gives an understated performance that is made all the more powerful by the fact that she has to embody a character in the midst of a cast who are playing themselves, something she manages to do by channelilng the ecentricities of the novel’s main character in an inspired fashion. Add to this the nature of a story that spends a good deal of time in the world that becomes the nomads very real backyard, and this ends up a real marriage of sensibilities and like minds.
One of the interesting things about how Zhoa pens this adapted script is the way she hides the narrative arc within the story itself. It could be tempting to think that there isn’t an honest story here, rather simply a meandering collection of moments and experiences that emerge from our main charcter joining those who live without a house and going through the everyday challenges of adapting to this environment. This includes gaining a picture of the seasonal routine that gives this lifestyle its structure, be it working at campgrounds in the summer or with the Amazon Work Force Program in the winter. The film has a meditative quality to the way it just moves with the flow of this community, offering these stark contrasts between the liveliness of the in seasons and the emptiness and silence of the emptied spaces that follow their departure. Zhoa also does an incredible job capturing all of the different emotions that come with this ebb and flow, including sorrow and sadness, joy, anticipation, lonliness, moments of transcendence and togetherness, and fear and frustration. We get these scenes that are designed to sweep us up into a moment of transcendence only to have it abruptly interupted by an inconvience or the simple, mundane reality of a moment. This switch in perspective affords the film an incredible control over the narrative arc that eventually does emerge with clarity and precision.
And what’s profound about the narrative arc is the way it is able to pull out a powerful theme from the interconnected stories that bind this community. This is at once a film about the larger socio-political reality as it is about the individual struggle within that. And on this larger level the story contains an almost existential concern for the expectations that such a society creates, particularly for those who find themselves suddenly facing a crisis or a tragedy or an unexpected change. At the same time, Zhoa’s eye for this story narrows in on the individual struggle, with the main throughline being about the subject of grief. And not just grieving the loss of someone. The way these stories interconnect provides us with a more comprehensive sense of grief, a process which flows from the notion of unexpected change. Grief over memory of what was lost as life pushed them, sometimes willingly, more often less than willingly into this new life and lifestyle. And within this process comes the need to accept and embrace this new way of living not as less then, but as an opportunity, be it an opportunity to simply survive, to discover a new outlook on life and community, or to even regroup and remigine a way to get back to where they once were.
This throughline of grief however does find its most poignant expression in the story of our main character, a middle aged and quickly aging woman who lost her husband and is coming to terms with a life where he is no longer a part of her world. Her story connects with the stories of others who have lost someone as well, and as the film progresses it begins to give us these different pictures of “home” as preserved both in the memories of the past and the new memories they continue to make in the present. It’s a truly beautiful process that is enlivened by Zhoa’s signature cinematography, which is given the grandest stage yet. I am genuinely grieving myself the loss of a chance to see this in theaters, as these are the kinds of films that are truly made for that experience and with that experience in mind. It both saddens me and enlivens me to know that someone like Zhoa is keeping this aspect of the artform alive in her commitment to making films like this, something that is becoming less and less common in the age of streaming unfortunately. We need to cherish these films while we can, and support them where we can so Directors like Zhoa can continue to champion the artform and continue to grow it in this kind of cinematic form.
Nomadland is poignant, heartbreaking, joy filled, and inspiring. It’s a story about change and the space we make for grieving and growing as the experiences and perspectives we occupy often change with this. It’s an emotionally gripping reminder of the world we live in, the places we occupy, and the stories that shape us within these spaces. In its most inspired moment it speaks of our intersecting stories, coining the phrase “see you down the road” as that which this community symbolizes. There are no official goodbyes in a community like this, only the expectation that our interconnected stories intertwine with an interconnected Spirit that assures us that no matter where we find ourselves on this journey called life our stories will continue, and we will continue to make our stories together, be it in this world or down the road in the new creation. The nomadic community then becomes a grand metaphor for communion with one another, the spaces we occupy and the spaces that occupy us, and God and Spirit, especially in times of struggle. A metaphor for the universal art of living and living together in the spaces that make up this great big world.
This is a film that is perfect for our present times, helping to remind of the beauty that exists and persists in the pain.
Now go ahead and just give this film all the awards now. If this doesn’t walk away with the Oscar for Best Director, Picture and Cinemtography it will be a travesty.