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Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao (The Rider [2017]) sees the American West with fascinating eyes. In Nomadland, she takes source material from the non-fiction book of the same name and sets it bracingly free on screen.

With camera and cinematographer seemingly imperceptible to the actors, Zhao transports us into the midst of a group of American nomadic workers. Living in their vans and modest RVs, they travel across the West working temporary, seasonal jobs at National Parks, amusement parks, and even a sprawling warehouse of the online retailer Amazon.

The director’s third feature, it’s a gentle, but unflinching film. A true hybrid of drama and documentary, it’s form and structure are not just for the sake of combining two storytelling methods, but because it serves the story.

If you watch many documentaries, you’re familiar with the “talking head” device, used to give first-person accounts of the events at hand. You’ve probably noticed that few docs manage to get around using this typical shot. To the extent that Nomadland is a documentary, director Zhao avoids talking heads. The characters might be similarly framed at times, but they are, technically, characters and not real people testifying about what they know. At the same time, they are exactly that. The fine line between fiction and non-fiction that Zhao draws is part of the miracle of this picture.

And what more can be said about Frances McDormand? Here we see the craft and talent that put her in the top tier among living actors. Committed to her roles and to the work required for excellence, in Nomadland she takes it all to a higher level. Instead of living among the van-dwelling travelers as preparation for her performance, McDormand immerses herself into the nomadic-worker culture in the performance itself. Most of the supporting cast play fictionalized versions of themselves, which results in an unusual level of realism.

Zhao and McDormand have fully realized the concept of filmmakers as explorers, and it’s unlikely that you’ve seen a film much like Nomadland. With remarkable depth of emotion, it’s a movie and a story that stay with you long after the closing credits.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.