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Following the Road through Director Chloé Zhao’s Films
by Marinell Haegelin

Born in Beijing, China, the upshot of Western pop culture influences, an actress stepmother, boarding school in London plus high school in California indicates filmmaker Chloé Zhao (born Zhao Ting) possibly understands America’s rural poor, and western vistas, better than most natives. The intimacy and understated understanding for society’s underprivileged folks distinguished Zhao’s two previous features. She developed stories around locals, their particular circumstances, and filmed on location to ensure each film’s naturalism, and, to get authentic portrayals. For NOMADLAND, Zhao hit the roads with a new category of wanderers (trying to) survive in post-2008’s financial-crashed America.

NOMADLAND stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a feisty widow who leaves her husband, and past, buried in rural Empire, Nevada, a bellyflopped company town that’s even had its zip code eliminated. Hitting the road in “Vanguard,” Fern joins Linda May for seasonal work at Amazon and, convenient camper facilities. Before leaving, Linda recommends Bob Wells’ yearly Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (the real McCoy) boot camp; so, with no specific plans Fern eventually heads south. Bob’s mentorship builds camaraderie and consists of open-air pep talks, e.g., “… (you) have to learn how to take care of your own shit,” communal meals, and stories around the campfire. The travelers learn basic auto repairing; help one another, and trade stuff and practical advice while making new friends. It gives Fern time to fix-up her camper, and when the meeting ends only Dave (David Strathairn) and Swankie are there. Fern bonds with Swankie, who’s preparing for her revelatory road trip to Alaska; Fern later meets Dave down the road at another work gig. Fern turns to sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) for (financial) help when “Vanguard” breaks down; talking, Dolly admits thinking Fern was “weird and eccentric” growing up, yet it left a big hole in Dolly’s life when Fern left. On the move again, Fern moseys westward where Dave is, embellishing her journey by pausing to gape at towering sequoias, or stare in wonderment at the pounding Pacific. Her epiphany is realizing, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless, and it’s not the same,” (she tells an ex-student) and, that freedom is too good to abandon.

Zhao creates worlds within worlds in her films. Her friendship with Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota influenced her 2015 debut film, SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME, centered on a brother and younger sister’s struggle to find their way in life, and establish roots in the community. Non-professional actors from Pine Ridge Reservation were involved, and it won many awards when released. During that time, Zhao became friends with Brady Jandreau, i.e., the breakout star of THE RIDER in 2017. Based on his rodeo lifestory, and with a cast of Jandreau family members and colleagues and Lakota Sioux, it was filmed in the Badlands of South Dakota. Zhao crafted a contemporary western around a wunderkind rodeo rider whose extreme decision soberly affects teenage sis and dad. Last I’d read, Zhao was developing a script for a historic Western about the first black U.S. Deputy Marshall, Bass Reeves.

Although, who could say no when two-time Oscar® winning Frances McDormand asks you to direct her project? Based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century that chronicled people that take to the road, by choice and/or more often economically motivated, in Zhao’s fictionalized script the Fern character takes on the role of an Everywoman. Utilizing her trademark tools, the cast of two—McDormand and Strathairn—plus Zhao’s cinematographer of choice, Joshua James Richards follow nomadic trails of Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska, and northern California’s rugged coastline. Richards stunningly depicts the confined, yet efficiently occupied van, as well as awe-inspiring panoramas of undulating desert and regal mountains as the group mix with nomads in temporary communities.

McDormand’s commanding performance epitomizes the wanderlust spirit empathetically, respectfully, and non-actors that become part of Zhao’s story relate to McDormand’s character, Fern. If we didn’t know better, we would think McDormand was a non-actor too. In two especially poignant scenes, Bob Wells tells Fern why he organized the RV camp, and in another Swankie talks about the effect of nature’s uplifting beauty on “final exits.”

Zhao may take (slight) detours, e.g. she’s directing a Marvel Studios project, ETERNALS, due for release in 2021, yet there is a heartfelt familiarity in her films that audiences relate to as she shows the exciting range of ways to travel.