I was less enthused than most about Chloé Zhao's breakthrough film The Rider, a rough-hewn, overly romanticised slice of Americana hobbled by non-pro performers who barely seemed up to the task of playing themselves. If Zhao's Oscar-winning follow-up Nomadland holds to a similarly rangy MO, it has the not inconsiderable advantage of organising itself around one of the best qualified of American actresses in Frances McDormand. The character McDormand plays here, Fern, is a composite of several real-life itinerants described in Jessica Bruder's 2017 non-fiction of the same title, but McDormand gives her coherence and a forceful, distinctive personality. She's a practical, resourceful woman, living out of a van and going place to place to do the kind of seasonal temp work - packing, sorting, cleaning - that now pass for jobs in the USA. She's resilient - you have to be nowadays - insisting "I'm not homeless, I'm just houseless", and making do regardless. Zhao films her, and goes about her own business, in much the same spirit of guarded optimism, confident there's something better yet around the next corner. The aim seems to have been to make a state-of-the-nation movie on the move, with a performer skilled enough to adapt to every new environment and conversation Fern finds herself in en route. As in The Rider, most of the cast are non-pros - they're exactly the nomads Bruder encountered on the road. A movie is thus built from the ground up, out of human bric-a-brac, those ordinary American citizens who've had the misfortune to fall through one safety net or another and now scrape together a modest living at the very bottom of the heap.
Maybe that sounds grim; the crucial thing to establish is that Nomadland never is. Early on, its intrinsic positivity actually gets the better of it: the already much-discussed depiction of an Amazon warehouse shopfloor struck me as at the very least questionably blithe, catching no sign of Fern's colleagues peeing in bottles or collapsing from hunger. (Zhao has been quick to accept a Marvel paycheque: we may yet have cause to review her independent credentials.) Yet like that other free-roaming artefact of the past few months, HBO's wonderful How To with John Wilson, Nomadland is a project sincerely interested in people, and the crazy stories and items people carry around with them. If nothing else, Zhao's film will banish - maybe forever - the image of the unkempt and smelly hobo. Some of these drifters retain the straggly facial hair of a Boudu, yes, but in the main, they have the look and bearing of your parents' friends: chummy, cuddly souls who've had to watch their pension plans dwindle, and been abandoned on the roadside by the powers-that-be, boomers no more. The loose dramatic structure - mostly, we're just tracking the movements of a woman heading ever further off-radar - affords Zhao carte blanche to hear out as many of these travellers' tales as a commercial feature will permit. Some are tales of woe, yes, but there are equally tales of wonder, endurance and survival; McDormand, with those clownish, Giuletta Masina-like features, does some of her best work here in reaction shots. They've organised themselves as they would a barbeque or yard sale, sharing knowledge, goods, what little they still have at their disposal. This, in turn, hands Zhao what's likely to be the meet-cute of the year: Fern encounters the upright Dave (David Strathairn) when she swaps a pot holder for a spare can opener. Still, they travel solo, coming and going like camper vans in the night. Love is a luxury, on this budget; there's barely space for one person in Fern's van, let alone two.
As the characters put in a shift - and McDormand surely breaks some kind of record for attempting the most jobs in a single film - Zhao's busy refining her signature naturalism. It's simply much harder to tell where the pros like McDormand and Strathairn stop and the non-pros take over than it was in The Rider; equally, to see where the drama gives way to what would be classified as documentary elsewhere. We're almost certainly getting a little of both when McDormand is spotted with a python around her neck, the character's squirms becoming indistinguishable from those of the actress playing her. But even the set-up that drops Fern into a rocky desert speaks twiceover: to Nomadland's status as a filmed adventure - the work of a director and actress setting off into the unknown, to see what's survived - and the demob glee of a heroine enjoying an all-too-rare afternoon off. If Fern presents as perhaps surprisingly unflustered, that's because a) she's a Frances McDormand character, and b) that character has come to think of America as a vast playground, a real land of the free. (This has to be the most quietly, stirringly patriotic film in years - and a counterpoint to the more performative patriotism we've seen on the nightly news in recent times.) In the context of the past year, I suspect Fern's mobility, horizontal though it is, will appear all the more poignant: here's a woman who's nothing if not scrupulous about social distancing, and is accordingly free to travel wherever she likes.
Does Nomadland romanticise its poverty? That's a trickier charge to counter. Zhao is wise enough to portray Fern's mobility as enforced, that which comes from being deemed surplus to requirements and asked to move on. Yet she and cinematographer Joshua James Richards are fond of showing this woman driving off into roseate sunsets, and I suspect there will be hardliners who object to the way the film uses Fern and Dave's circling around one another to sustain both itself and the hope of a conventional happy ending. Nomadland is a work of entertainment rather than a radical Marxist tract - the version I saw was prefaced by the old 21st Century Fox fanfare, and it's been playing on Disney+ for the past month - but crucially it's a work of entertainment that takes place after the fall. What Zhao shows us is how, when the markets bombed, houses were repossessed and the worst came to pass, people simply regathered, loaded their wagons and rolled on, whether in packs or alone. At its most piercing, her film spots how short-termism has blinded Fern to the possibilities of the permanent, which strikes me as a new universal truth: it is hard to imagine a future for yourself in the world when you're so busy living day-to-day. Mostly, Zhao intuits it's enough to bed down among people who've been left to pick up the pieces of a badly broken system. Her film might seem episodic, were it not for the connective compassion that binds these episodes and these people together, and binds camera to characters. Travelling light, refusing to contrive a crisis, allows Zhao's interest in those people to come through all the stronger. She surely senses that increasingly, with the state in disrepair, communities in danger of vanishing off the map, and the ties holding up our safety nets being cut to save a few extra pennies here and there, all we have is one another. In the end, that may be the one thing that saves us.
Nomadland is currently streaming on Disney+, and opens in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow.