When journalist Jessica Bruder toiled away on her book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, I doubt a big-screen adaptation felt like a probably outcome. Bruder’s reportage was on a modern brand of itinerant living, practiced especially by older citizens who felt left behind by a collapsing manufacturing base. Loaded into vans tricked out with gizmos meant to accommodate living on the road and traveling highways to get from one seasonal, meagerly compensated job to the next, these are wanderers on the fringes of a capitalistic culture that can barely be bothered to acknowledge their needs and values as human beings. On the surface, it’s not the stuff of movie fiction. Or at least that would a safe assumption in a version of the cinematic ecosystem without Chloé Zhao smartly, assuredly taking up space in it.
Continuing a devotion to seeing — really seeing — the hard-luck discards residing largely in the center of the country, Zhao takes Bruder’s book and pottery-wheels it into a beautifully plainspoken work of cinema. As with The Rider, Zhao’s 2018 breakthrough feature, Nomadland finds monumental poignancy in lives that most would consider sadly small. The film mostly follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman in late middle age whose already modest prospects shriveled up and were carried away by gusts of fate when her husband unexpectedly passed away and the factory town where they lived collapsed after the lifeblood business shut down. Fern travels a weathered map to different stagnant communities where she can get brief employment, at an Amazon facility around Christmas time or as a camp host during the summer. Her orbit crosses with those of other vagabonds along the way, in shabby but heartfelt communities of temporary camaraderie.
The film’s plot is loose, seemingly improvisational, made to match the lifestyle it depicts. Zhao, who also wrote the screenplay, favors subtle, telling moments over cataclysmic conflict. She has an almost sociological commitment to documenting unadorned truth, making strong, strident statements about the state of the nation by simply shooting plain interactions between characters. Many of the people on screen are non-actors, people actually criss-crossing the byways of the U.S. living the story the film tells. That approach doesn’t mean Zhao abandons the rigors of her craft, figuring she can get by with documentary-like roughness. Nomadland is elegantly, thoughtfully built, with exemplary cinematography, by Joshua James Richards, and artful editing, by Zhao. A morning walk against a backdrop of battered van and commiserating fellow travelers carries the poetic beauty of the most fiercely orchestrated tableau of Terrence Malick, but with a earthy grounding that makes it real as cracked pavement.
Zhao’s Nomadland operates with no judgment. Understanding is the lodestar of the film, and Zhao endeavors to amplify voices and stories that too often go unheard. She moves out of the way, and in that has a fine fellow traveler in McDormand, who gives a nuanced, stunningly vanity-free performance. Nomadland is wise, melancholy, and notably unobtrusive. It is a proper, respectful citizen of the culture it operates within and depicts. There might be no better way to honor the people whose stories it tells.