“Nomadland” tells the stories of contemporary travelers who lost their homes during the 21st-century economic collapse and began living, and exploring the country, in vans. Writer-director Chloé Zhao immerses viewers in this world through encounters with actual nomads and the journey of a fictional protagonist, and she sets their scenes on striking western American landscapes. The result is a beautifully crafted and remarkably affecting film.
Adapted by Zhou from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, this unusual road tale, infused with quiet social commentary, is Zhou’s latest realist drama (following the South Dakota-set “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider”) that depicts a little-known American community and features nonprofessional actors playing fictional versions of themselves.
But with “Nomadland,” Zhou has expanded her setting to include much of the western United States, invented a heroine, and cast a well-known actor, Frances McDormand, to play her.
McDormand’s Fern is a 60ish widowed former substitute teacher who lost her home in Empire, Nev., after the mine there shut down. “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” Fern says, referring to her life on the road in her van.
Seeking work, Fern travels the seasonal job route, which first lands her at Amazon’s packaging warehouse. Later, her worksites include a beet-harvesting facility and a national-park camp.
Fern discovers a van-dweller community, composed largely of older Americans who, like herself, have become nomads out of economic necessity and have found fulfillment on the road and with nature. At RV parks and nomad gatherings, including the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous — hosted by nomad guru Bob Wells (appearing as himself), in Arizona — Fern meets fellow lone travelers and makes friends.
These include seasoned nomads Linda May and Swankie, both of whom appear in Bruder’s book. Swankie’s monologue about mortality and nature is a knockout and demonstrates the effectiveness of Zhao’s casting methods.
It’s not a glamorous life. Van dwellers often dine on canned soup and use a bucket for a toilet.
The other primary supporting character is the Zhao-fabricated Dave, played by another recognizable professional, David Strathairn. Dave takes a liking to Fern and invites her to go on the road with him. But while Fern is intrigued, and later visits Dave, she prefers to go it alone.
Fern also visits the home of her conventional but admiring sister (Melissa Smith). Here, Fern’s nomadhood is likened to the pioneers.
Some of the nomad sequences, like a scene featuring a young traveler trying to win his girlfriend’s heart, flow less organically and engagingly than others. Additionally, one wishes that Zhao had included more interior shots of Fern’s lived-in van. But those are small gripes.
Somewhat like Ramin Bahrani and David Gordon Green in their early filmmaking periods, Zhao has an effective naturalistic and humanist storytelling style. She depicts people shortchanged by society and acknowledges the injustice without getting preachy.
The movie also contains scenic grandeur — deserts, plains, forests — and Zhao derives superb human-connection moments from her cast. These can be profoundly moving. McDormand helps bring about the magic.
Collaborating closely with Zhao, McDormand is completely credible as a nomad, whether Fern is bartering a pot holder for a can opener or relieving herself on a bucket or taking offense when a fellow nomad describes her van as “ratty.”
Fern’s scenes with Strathairn’s Dave are so enjoyable that we can ignore the fact that Fern doesn’t really need a potential suitor.
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie
Written and directed by: Chloé Zhao
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Opening in virtual theaters Friday, “A First Farewell” depicts a community seldom seen onscreen and features nonprofessional actors as fictional versions of themselves. In this case, first-time feature filmmaker Lina Wang looks back the Uyghur community in Xinjiang, China, where she grew up, by following three children in the rural, Muslim area.
Preteen Isa (Isa Yasan), whose family raises farm animals, enjoys playing with neighbor girl Kalbinur (Kalbinur Rahmati) and her younger brother, Alinaz (Alinaz Rahmati). Isa also must deal with darker issues. His mother (Ugulem Sugur) is ill, and he must help care for her.
Several farewells sadden Isa: His mother is placed in a nursing home, his older brother (Musa Yasan) goes away to school, and Kalbinur leaves the village with her family.
Another theme is the requirement of Mandarin-language instruction in schools, applied by teachers displaying no regard for the Uyghu culture of the village children.
The movie isn’t hard-hitting or overtly critical of Chinese policy, although it comes close to being both things when school administrators publicly humiliate academically lagging Kalbinur, along with her mother.
But Wang’s down-to-earth tone, familiarity with the subject matter, and success in inspiring natural and sometimes delightful performances from the nonprofessional young cast result in a thoroughly engaging, believable, and quietly moving story about a seldom spotlighted population in China and the universal spirit of children.
A First Farewell
Starring: Isa Yasan, Kalbinur Rahmati, Alinaz Rahmati, Musa Yasan
Written and directed by: Lina Wang
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes