Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” is a tiny indie film on a huge scale, an intimate drama set against the vast spaces of the American West. It’s also a typical production for the young Chinese-American director Zhao in that its cast is made up of non-actors playing themselves, or versions of themselves — except that at the center of the film is a two-time Oscar-winning actress whose very presence, you’d think, would upset the delicate balance that Zhao struck in her films “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider.”
Then again, Frances McDormand isn’t your usual two-time Oscar-winning actress. Grounded and devoid of vanity, she’s probably the only double Oscar-winning performer who doesn’t seem out of place pooping in a bucket, as she does on screen in this film.
That’s not to say that she can’t glam it up when the part calls for it. But especially in a role like this one, there’s nothing actory or showy about McDormand; it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could slip as seamlessly into the textures of the nomadic existence depicted in Zhao’s lyrical but plainspoken portrait of life on the road. And that goes for the film’s one other name actor, David Strathairn, as well; understated in a way that feels effortless but obviously isn’t, he simply doesn’t hit false notes, which is essential in a movie that could be capsized by false notes.
The drama from Searchlight is the biggest awards push of this truncated fall festival season: It premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival simultaneously, along with a Los Angeles drive-in screening in collaboration with the canceled Telluride Film Festival. It also played the New York Film Festival, giving it the kind of film-fest ubiquity that has propelled other films into the awards race over the years (including past Searchlight Best Picture winners “Slumdog Millionaire,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman” and “The Shape of Water”).
It’s always risky to declare any movie a slam-dunk awards contender. And “Nomadland,” which is based on the nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century” by Jessica Bruder, is a quiet movie; there’s no flash, no big performances, nothing designed to be Oscar bait.
But it is also a gentle, uncommonly rich film, a road movie in which the main character hits the road because she’s forced to, and keeps going not to get away from home, but to find it. Set in the aftermath of the financial collapse of 2008, it looks at tough times and locates humanity and grace, though without romanticizing what it’s seeing.
McDormand plays Fern, a widow whose entire town of Empire, Nevada was essentially shut down when the United States Gypsum Corporation closed a long-running sheet-rock plant in 2011. She loses her home, lives out of her van and takes whatever jobs she can find: an Amazon warehouse, a fast-food restaurant, a gig as a hostess at an RV camp. With nowhere to go, she takes her van on the road and ends up at a gathering of like-minded nomads in Quartzsite, Nevada, where they exchange stories and tips for life on the road.
For a film about people who are on the move, “Nomadland” requires patience: The film spends a lot of time sitting around listening to conversations and letting people tell their stories, letting texture take precedence over plot. And except for McDormand and Strathairn, those people are virtually all real-life nomads that Zhao cast on the road; they ground the film in the rhythms of their hardscrabble lives in a society that has little room for them, and McDormand and Strathairn slide right into those rhythms alongside them, mining details from their own friendship along the way. (There’s a reason why their characters’ names, Fern and Dave, aren’t all that far off from Fran and David.)
The movie is an ode to “workhorses who are being put out to pasture,” in the words of Bob Wells, who turned his life in a van into a job advising others how to do the same. It takes place in vast expanses of desert or dramatic stretches of seaside highway, with characters who are often as not alone, and who are on the move because they have no place to stay. But in that movement, they also find a scattered but strong community; it’s a family whose motto is “see you down the road,” and whose promise is that all paths cross eventually.
What happens in “Nomadland” is secondary to where it happens, and to the care with which Zhao creates the world of cluttered vans, open spaces and people trying to take their sense of home and make it a moveable feast. There’s grace and beauty in the film’s physical and emotional landscape, particularly when it’s linked to the evocative piano-based music of Ludovico Einaudi, but the director doesn’t let you sink too deeply into the reverie, which can end with a flat tire or an order to keep moving.
And for Zhao, who began her career carving out an intimate and affecting style of filmmaking that didn’t really make or need room for movie stars, “Nomadland” is both a move in a bolder direction and an affirmation that she’s been on the right road all along.