How do you accurately judge a filmmaker who places no judgment on the characters in her movies? Over the course of three distinctive features, Chloé Zhao has made an art out of observing, of immersing herself in worlds, displaying a remarkable ability to come back with stories that feel effortlessly true. You watch her films, convinced that they’ve sprung forth unfiltered. You feel like you’re witnessing them developing in front of you, their themes emerging in real time. Her level of invisible craft is astonishing.
The Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded our New Generation prize to Zhao for her second film, The Rider. Her latest is a further evolution, and her first with a major star. But note how even the mighty Frances McDormand is woven seamlessly into the fabric of Nomadland — how this expansive film feels utterly in keeping with Zhao’s open, curious, luminously humble sensibility.
Based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, the movie is about Fern and the community of nomads she finds after losing her husband and her town. But Zhao doesn’t assign concrete meaning to Fern’s journey. (Is she running away from the past? Seeking to repair herself? Or has she simply returned to her natural state of wandering?) Likewise, Nomadland doesn’t render a verdict on the nomad lifestyle or on the people who, for myriad reasons, have decided not to sign up for “traditional” society.
But eschewing judgment doesn’t mean not having a perspective. The beauty of this film, like the open road, is how it offers endless possibility for discovery. Chloé Zhao follows along with Fern, not to judge, but to empathize. It’s the rare director who can make the cosmic and the ineffable feel as natural as breathing, as elemental as the next stop along the way.
— Tim Grierson