Despite its recent and long-coming fall from the clouds, America is still a great place to live, if you’re educated and work in an in-demand and lucrative field. But if you don’t have the right ingredients, America will chew you up, spit you out, and ignore you. In other words, America only treats you right if it finds you useful.

Director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is an authentic, absorbing and quiet character study of people America doesn’t find useful. Set in 2011, the film focuses on Fern, a woman who, like many Americans, uses her van as a mobile home while travelling between jobs through the stark and unfriendly American desert.

After working for three years at a US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, Fern faces tragedy when she loses her job not long after her husband passes away. She has little choice but to sell her belongings and buy a van to live in, while taking on seasonal work for an Amazon packing warehouse.

Fern is a proud woman. She won’t stay with well-wishers despite the offers, and promises to return any money she borrows to get on her feet. Eventually, she meets Dave (David Strathairn), and the two have immediate chemistry.

While it could have focused more on corporate exploitation, director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is an authentic, absorbing and quiet character study of people America doesn’t find useful

The two award-winning actors in the film, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, are excellent and deliver powerful and nuanced portrayals.

Nomadland also stars Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells in supporting roles as other older Americans with similarly transient lifestyles. The scenes featuring these three actors feel genuine, unscripted and compelling, because the trio plays fictional versions of themselves. Bob Wells, of course, is also a YouTube star and an anti-capitalist who gets his moment in the film to say his piece.

Each character lives the nomad life because of personal misfortunes, exploitation from giant corporations, or neglect from the state. The melancholy in their voices, on their faces and their body language, feels so real that either they’re the greatest actors of all time, or they’re channelling real experiences.

The camera just observes and lets them be. The longer we watch them and appreciate their stories, the more we like them and feel frustrated for them. For long periods, the camera just observes and lets us appreciate the stories in what almost feels like a documentary.

While there’s a story, it’s not much. If you’re going into Nomadland expecting a conventional film, then you’ll be disappointed.

Nomadland is based on Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. It deviates from the book by focusing more on the characters and less on the exploitation from their employers, Amazon.

As everyone knows, Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, sits on a throne of excess, with more wealth than some countries, and more money than he could spend in a few lifetimes. Although Bezos deserves success for his genius, he fails to share that success with the people who made it happen, such as the nomads in the film. I wish Nomadland had explored corporate exploitation more than it does.

Interestingly, Chloé Zhao is a bit of a nomad herself. Some sections of right-wing America haven’t taken kindly to her film’s critique because she wasn’t born in the country. Meanwhile, her country of origin, China, has rejected her for her criticism of a deeply artificial and puppeteered Chinese society.

Clearly, Chloé Zhao tells it like it is. And that’s reason enough to watch Nomadland.

Rated R for some nudity

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 18th, 2021

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