Chloé Zhao is a director that suddenly appears to be on the rise in Hollywood.
Zhao’s first two feature films, “Songs My Brother Taught Me” and “The Rider,” both received widespread critical acclaim. She was instantly shot to another level when she signed on to direct “Eternals,” a new science-fiction adventure coming from Marvel Studios that was supposed to open last year but is now set for release this November. Only a few weeks ago, news came that she’s sinking her teeth into another massive property, as she’ll be directing a new “Dracula” film for Universal, which has been described as a “futuristic sci-fi Western.”
Despite Zhao taking on these larger projects, she’s not done directing smaller independent films. The latest, “Nomadland,” has become a frontrunner for a Best Picture nomination at this year’s Academy Awards. “Nomadland,” which will be available on Hulu and at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center this weekend, is a down-to-earth story of Fern, a woman living her life on the road.
Fern is played by the ever-talented Frances McDormand, who unsurprisingly shines in the role. Not a lot happens in “Nomadland,” but the film still manages to be incredibly moving and resonant. It’s set shortly after the Great Recession of 2008, during which Fern lost nearly everything. Without work or a reason to stay where she was, Fern embarked upon the adventure of a nomadic lifestyle. She lives in her van, which has been renovated into a mini-camper of sorts, and travels throughout the continental U.S. taking whatever odd jobs she can find to pay for food and gas. She isn’t homeless, but rather, as she describes it, houseless. She meets all sorts of strange and interesting people on her neverending pilgrimage. It is in the stories and experiences of these people that the heart of the film truly lies.
“Nomadland” is a study of what it really takes to be happy. It explores ideas of greed, possession and learning to let go of both your past and your belongings. It doesn’t provide a solid list of what you need to have a good life, but rather it thrives in the exploration of the question. Fern interacts with all sorts of people on the road, ranging from homeless people simply looking for a way out of their situation to wealthy individuals who made their money investing on Wall Street. Through the conversations she has with all these people, Fern gains a better understanding of her own life. She considers what actually matters to her and what she can do to prioritize the important aspects of her life.
Watching Fern go on this journey, both physically and emotionally, has a mirroring effect on the viewer. The viewer begins to consider many of the same questions and priorities Fern does, which makes watching “Nomadland” an almost therapeutic experience. Coming out of this movie, it’s hard not to reflect upon one’s own choices and ideologies. The ideas in this movie stick with you, making it a film that won’t be soon forgotten.
“Nomadland” isn’t a terribly exciting film. There’s no grand statement it’s trying to make, but that’s exactly why it’s so brilliant. It’s an exploration of a question and many possible answers to it. The film doesn’t paint Fern’s way of life as ideal for everyone, but simply as a result of her own philosophies. The film questions the typical success-driven idea of the American dream and instead asks the audience to consider what it is that truly motivates them and makes them happy. It shows that life doesn’t have to be about money and social status, and how being honest with oneself and showing appreciation for the little things in life can make someone happier and more content than ever.
“Nomadland” is the first film of Zhao’s I’ve seen, and seeing the sheer volume of care and thought she put into it makes me even more excited to see what she does in the future. I’m obviously excited to see what she does with “Eternals” and “Dracula,” but I’m also — maybe even more so — curious to see what other smaller, non-blockbuster stories like this she can tell.