The final shot in “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” Chloé Zhao’s too-little-seen 2015 debut feature, is of a fistful of sand being hurled skyward, then quietly dissipating on a desert breeze. It’s not an atypical image to encounter in this filmmaker’s rapturously poetic yet insistently grounded work: Here, as in “The Rider” and “Nomadland” — the movie for which she won the Academy Award for best director on Sunday night — Zhao’s well-established fondness for sunlit skies and craggy landscapes is on full, breathtaking display. Still, that last shot from “Songs” offers a remarkably concise summation, not only of the artfully rough-hewn story that came before it but also of the specific ideas and methods that have made Zhao the artist she is.
The people we meet in Zhao’s movies have all in their own ways been temporarily uprooted and cast adrift, left to shuffle and wander toward an uncertain destination. Some fall quickly back to earth; others wind up further afield. Johnny (John Reddy), the Oglala Lakota teenager who hurls that sand in “Songs,” considers leaving his South Dakota reservation and trying his luck in California.
Brady (Brady Jandreau), a Lakota rodeo cowboy who’s suffered a career-ending injury in “The Rider,” weighs the risk of another dangerous accident against the risk of losing the only thing that gives his life joy and purpose.
Fern (Frances McDormand), the poor Nevada widow who hits the road in “Nomadland,” travels the U.S. in search of work, community and something more elusive. She must decide by the movie’s end whether to give up her new way of life or keep on looking.
These characters — two of whom, Johnny and Brady, are played by non-actors riffing on their life experiences — weigh intensely personal decisions. Those decisions will have serious implications for them and their loved ones, but they will otherwise be passed over with silent indifference by the world at large. Certainly, by the standards of the cinematic mainstream, the lives in question are as small, inconsequential and dramatically unpromising as that cloud of sand. That we are privy to their experiences — and find ourselves utterly captivated, even transfixed by them — is a testament to the presence of Zhao’s camera, an extraordinarily sensitive instrument that illuminates inner shadows and finds striking beauty in the quotidian.
Nothing about Zhao’s filmmaking — observational smarts, fragmentary narratives, slow-building emotions, microscopic budgets, instinctive regard for the viewer’s intelligence — made her a natural candidate for Oscar glory. That’s why her triumph Sunday night is thrilling and no less remarkable for having been widely anticipated all season long. Her achievement is historic many times over.
At 38, Zhao became the first woman of color and the first woman of Asian descent to win the academy’s feature directing prize. (She’s shattered the same glass ceiling for many other organizations this season, including the Directors Guild of America, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.)
Zhao also became only the second woman to win the directing Oscar, more than a decade after Kathryn Bigelow’s groundbreaking win for “The Hurt Locker.” That’s a ridiculously long wait, and while it’s better late than never, one hesitates to give the academy too much credit: Even with a steadily diversifying membership that’s far more attentive to non-white-male filmmakers now than it was 20 years ago (witness the glorious sight of Zhao accepting her directing statue from last year’s winner, Bong Joon Ho), progress remains a frustratingly slow, uphill journey.
On the other hand, Zhao’s victory falls in line with the academy’s growing and entirely welcome internationalism: She’s the latest in a remarkable line of recent directing winners who were born outside the U.S., including Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Ang Lee — a heartening reaffirmation of Hollywood as a place where immigrant auteurs of any background can flourish.
Zhao may have taken a different route from the likes of Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch, among the countless European expats who helped make Old Hollywood great, but her trajectory is no less remarkable. Born in Beijing in 1982 and educated in the U.K. and on the East Coast, she couldn’t have been more of an outsider — a word she’s often used to describe herself — when she arrived at South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Immersing herself in the environment and working with a small, nimble crew, she made “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” a somber, semi-improvised drama that screened at Sundance in 2015. That helped establish the groundwork for her breakthrough feature, “The Rider,” which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes in 2017 and became a critical sensation.
In telling stories about individuals at personal crossroads, “Songs” and “The Rider” exist at different junctures: They blur the lines between friendship and collaboration, hard-scrabble reality and magic-hour reverie, the independent and the mainstream. Zhao’s films have no use for conventional labels or taxonomies; they slip fluidly between myriad registers of cinematic engagement.
When you watch Jandreau mounting a horse in “The Rider,” you’re watching, on one level, a documentary about a young man doing something he’s done since childhood. You’re also seeing a natural-born actor erasing the difference between star power and life experience and stealthily remapping the iconography of the classic American western to boot.
Zhao is hardly the first filmmaker to blur fiction and nonfiction techniques with such assurance; regular festivalgoers have likely seen far more radical, recondite examples of her sensibility in the work of auteurs like Jia Zhangke, Pedro Costa and Oliver Laxe. With “Nomadland,” a consummate outsider’s portrait of outsider culture, Zhao pushes her experimentation in a direction that feels at once more accessible and more daring.
When you witness Frances McDormand (who produced the film and recruited Zhao to direct) hanging out with real-life American nomads like Linda May and Charlene Swankie, many of whom told their stories in Jessica Bruder’s 2017 source book, you’re beholding something slyly radical: a marriage of investigative journalism and collaborative storytelling, a movie that courts Hollywood star power in ways that knowingly deepen and complicate it.
That alchemy hasn’t worked for everyone. For “Nomadland’s” harshest critics, Zhao’s attempt to thread a formally tricky quasi-realist needle has yielded an aesthetic muddle — and for some, a political one. The most widely circulated complaint is that the footage Zhao shot of McDormand working at an Amazon fulfillment center obscures the company’s shameful labor practices (which were detailed in Bruder’s book) and that the movie offers a cheap romanticization of poverty in lieu of a more trenchant critique of predatory capitalism. It’s a debate that has raised thornily familiar questions about depiction vs. endorsement, the uses and limitations of cinematic beauty and the movie medium’s natural inclination toward narratives of individual resilience over collective struggle.
The conversation swirling around “Nomadland” has been at once frustrating and worthwhile, even if its most persistent critics and I must part company at a certain point. To these eyes, Zhao’s film is a more politically aware document than some have given it credit for and its moments of redemptive joy and beauty, far from soft-pedaling the issues at stake, serve to illuminate a story that is suffused with a collective sense of sorrow and loss. Zhao has noted her disinterest in turning her movie into a screed or exposé or even in making an overt statement about corporate greed, which strikes me as appropriate for a movie in which the effects of that greed are implicit in every frame.
At any rate, the discourse doesn’t seem to have unsettled the academy voters who handed Zhao the directing Oscar, to say nothing of the awards-giving bodies that have showered the film with love all season . The industry’s embrace of “Nomadland,” an understated and achingly intimate road movie about the ways and means of America’s itinerant underclass, has been one of the persistent wonders of this unprecedentedly strange awards season.
Some of the movie’s naysayers have chalked up its success to an industry-devastating pandemic that took bigger studio pictures out of contention. Its admirers have noted that the story of a woman learning to live in isolation — and to forge a new kind of community with fellow travelers — had a subtle yet undeniable resonance in a year when all of us, to varying degrees, had to figure out how to start over.
Others have likened “Nomadland,” with its soul-stirring empathy for the disenfranchised, to a modern-day “Grapes of Wrath,” albeit one influenced less by the majestic classicism of John Ford (who won a directing Oscar himself for that film) than by the restless visual and spiritual epiphanies of Terrence Malick. Whatever the case, I find it wholly remarkable and deeply heartening that an industry known for its love of the obvious and overstated saw the beauty in a directorial voice as delicate and understated as Zhao’s, a voice this conversant with the languages of American independent cinema and international art cinema alike. It seems impossible to comprehend “Nomadland’s” success without acknowledging Zhao’s exceptionalism: not just her obvious skill, intuition and resourcefulness as a filmmaker, but also her gift for synthesizing disparate cultural and aesthetic influences into a work that sidesteps the industry’s easy, reductive categorizations.
Despite the steadiness and consistency of her first three features, which constitute a kind of loose-limbed rural American trilogy, Zhao seems to have little interest in being pigeonholed. Her next project, hotly anticipated by the industry and perhaps subtly dreaded by her cinephile fans, will be, at least in terms of budget and fanfare, a quantum leap forward: the star-packed Marvel comic book adaptation “Eternals,” due to be released in November. It will serve as a fascinating test of whether Hollywood’s blockbuster assembly line can accommodate a genuine artistic vision; it will also serve as another major test of Zhao herself, mere months after winning the industry’s highest honor.
Will the best director of 2020 continue her winning streak or will her graceful visions be sucked up by a newly voracious post-COVID Hollywood machine? The latter would be dispiriting but not entirely surprising: She would hardly be the first independent filmmaker to be handed the keys to the kingdom only to get squashed by the door. But I’m hopeful and optimistic that she’ll encounter a different fate and that whether her journey takes her back to South Dakota, the open road or someplace entirely new, more surprises of the kind she’s given us already lie in store. Maybe it takes an outsider — an artist comfortable with being borne aloft on a desert breeze — to show the rest of us how it’s done.