Chloé Zhao doesn’t just make movies — she lives them. Prior to filming her acclaimed film The Rider, she spent months living with the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the badlands of South Dakota, getting to know the subjects of her docudrama. While on-set for Nomadland, she, along with lead Frances McDormand, and a few crew members, lived out of vans, experiencing the life of the modern day nomads the film so tenderly portrays. That intense approach goes a long way towards explaining what makes her films so special: She meets her subjects where they are, without expectations or judgement.
McDormand plays Fern, a woman in her 60s who moves into her van and hits the road after her home in Nevada literally shuts down in the wake of a factory closing. Nomadland follows her as she crisscrosses the American West, bearing witness to incredible almost otherworldly vistas, meeting kindred spirits from all walks of life, and ultimately, just living her life the way she wants to.
“What the nomads are doing is not that different from what the pioneers did,” a woman’s voice in the trailer explains. “I think Fern is part of an American tradition.”
Though it’s undoubtedly a fictional story, Nomadland has an unvarnished documentary feel to it. With the major exception of McDormand and her co-star David Strathairn, Zhao cast mostly real-life nomads like Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells, and based her script on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.
“You could see her listening to these individuals telling their stories, and then collaborating with them to fold their own narratives into the script,” Zhao’s directing assistant Hannah Peterson told Indiewire. “Chloé really allows people to choose how they want to represent themselves. The safety of fiction filmmaking, in my opinion, actually pulls out a level of honesty and authenticity that I think would be impossible if this was a documentary purporting to truth.”
More than four months out from the postponed April 2021 Oscars, the awards buzz around Nomadland has already reached deafening levels. Zhao’s film took home the Golden Lion at Venice and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and its limited run at Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual theater sold out in a matter of hours.
Part of the draw is two-time Oscar winner McDormand’s career-best performance, which is full of quiet strength and real, raw joy. But there’s also something to be said about a film focusing on the heartland that also highlights women’s stories. In a genre that prioritizes stiff, grim cowboys and an almost heartless machismo, Zhao shows a world where women lean on each other to seek freedom. One scene, which you can spot in the trailer, has Fern and her friend lying out in their nightdresses and homemade sheet masks in their self-proclaimed “Badlands Spa.”
Nomadland is currently set for theatrical release on February 19 although the recent announcement that Hulu will be releasing 20th Century Fox and Searchlight films as originals on its streaming platform suggests we might be able to watch it from home sooner rather than later. That’s great news — in a year where most of us have been vacationing within the confines of our homes, Nomadland is the ultimate road trip movie, giving us a front-seat look at some of the most beautiful places you can imagine.
Watch the full trailer below: