Chloe Zhao

6.5 Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)
7.2 The Rider (2017)
7.3 Nomadland (2020)

Ting "Chloe" Zhao (China, 1982), who moved to Los Angeles during her high-school years, debuted with Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015).

The Rider (2017), a biopic of sorts, in which there are protagonists that are not human: poverty (which is everywhere in this film) and the landscape (credit cinematographer Joshua James Richards) what mixes with the plot creating a unique flow of image and action. The sky is as much a protagonist of the film as the horse rider. The parable of the hero who discovers that the real courage lies in accepting his fate, not in defying it, in living and not in dying, would not be as powerful without the landscape and the setting in a poor rural isolated society.

Brady changes the bandage on his head, revealing a horrible scar. Then he hugs his horse Gus. His father is surprised to find him home: he escaped from the hospital. Brady watches a video of a rodeo on his smartphone, presumably the one where he got injured. His 15-year-old sister Lil is mentally retarded. His father disapproves of his passion for the rodeo. Brady visits his home's tomb outside the house. He vomits. Three friends visit him. They take him to make a bonfire in the prairie. They are scared of ending up farmers instead of rodeo heroes. Brady visits his friend Lane, who is like an elder brother and who is in a rehabilitation hospital following his own fall from a horse. Lane is reduced to a wheelchair, unable to talk. He communicates with sign language. They watch together videos of when Lane was a star of the rodeo. Brady takes Lil to a saloon but then almost gets into a fight with a friend who is flirting with her. Another friend, a girl, offers him marijuana and tries to calm him down. His father owes money to the owner of the trailer. Brady finds a job as a store clerk: for him it's humiliating. His father sells the horse Gus to pay for the trailer. Brady is angry at him for losing money in casinos. Bill hires Brady to train a horse of a special breed, and Brady succeeds, showing his skills as a horse trainer. However, it's a dangerous job for someone who still has to recover from brain damage. Brady is tempted to pawn his saddle, an act that would mark the end of his rodeo career, but then decides to keep it. Victor offers him the horse Apollo, that nobody has been able to tame. Brady doesn't have the money but his father buys it for him. Brady easily tames Apollo. Brady takes a job as a horse trainer but obviously he has problems: he is still vomiting and his hand sometimes doesn't open. One day he faints and ends up in a hospital bed again. The doctor tells him clearly that horse riding will kill him. Brady teaches a kid, James, the tricks of the rodeo. Then he challenges the kid at wrestling and almost injures him. Brady visits Lane again and helps him exercise. He is still working as a store clerk. A young fan wants a picture with him. Apollo escapes and injures itself to the point that it can never run again. Brady doesn't have the guts to shoot Apollo but his father does it for him. Brady can't help meditating that humans like him and Lane who are hurt don't get shop, they have to keep living. Brady decides that he is meant for the rodeo and, despite his father's opposition, heads for a rodeo. He's ashamed of how his father ended, a loser. His father is furious but then he takes Lil to see the rodeo. Brady thinks it over and at the last minute he decides to quit and walks towards his family, hugging his father. He visits Lane one more time, and Lane uses sign language to tell him not to give up.

Nomadland (2020) is a quiet realistic drama, based on two real events: the closing of a gypsum plant that killed an entire town, and Bob Welles' Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. It is a profoundly pessimistic meditation on capitalism and consumerism, how they destroy lives and entire towns, leaving little behind. The real values are to be found in the "nomads" who refuse to accept the domination of money, the "misfits" who choose to live outside the ordained rituals of work, church and family, the eccentrics who are trying to recreate the bonds of community according to primal values of friendship and empathy. The fact that the two main characters are honoring the dead with their lives is also a powerful metaphor.

A gypsum plant closes and the entire location, called Empire, gets erased from the postal map. Fern is a middle-aged woman who loses her job and has to move away. She packs her van and starts driving on the long straight highway. She takes a job on an assembly chain for shipping goods. She shows her coworker Linda how she decorated her van, in which she sleeps and cooks, with her humble belongings and memories. It's Christmas time. Linda confesses that she thought of killing herself but then found new meaning in life when she became a nomad and met the community organized in the desert by a man named Bob: Rubber Tramp Rendezvous or RTR. When the company closes for the holidays, Linda invites Fern to travel to RTR but Fern wants to find a job locally. People discourage her because there are no jobs in that town. Fern has to park in the middle of nowhere to avoid paying a monthly fee and temperatures are dropping rapidly. The following day she starts driving south to the desert. At the RTR camp she meets Linda. She is immediately invited to listen to a speech by Bob, who preaches the nomadic life. Fern makes new friends, including Dave and Swankie, an older woman who is dying of cancer but doesn't want to die in a hospital. Then the time comes to leave the camp. She begins her drive back through spectacular landscape and finds a job as a campground host in a national park where Linda works. Dave too is working in that national park. Linda reveals that she wants to build an earthship, a self-contained house made of tires, bottles and cans; and then she leaves to start her project on her own piece of land. Dave tries to be helpful to Fern but makes more trouble than anything else. When he falls sick, however, Fern is there to help him. Next, we see them both working at a restaurant. They spend more time together, visiting an aquarium, picnicking in a park, taking an astronomical tour, and so on. One night, after hours, a man shows up asking for Dave: it's his son. He's about to become a father, and Dave a grandfather. Dave tells Fern that he feels bad about being an absent father. Then he leaves to go and be with his son and his wife. Fern leaves too (not clear why) and finds another job. Her van (which is also her house) breaks down. The repairs are expensive. Fern calls her sister Dolly asking for a loan. Then she takes a bus to visit Dolly in person. They go over Fern's eccentric persona: she left home as soon as she could and went as far as she could, and married a man after just a few months. Dolly now has a nice middle-class life while Fern is homeless and a widow. Dolly offers Fern to stay with them but Dolly refuses to leave in a room of her house. Dolly lends Fern the money to fix the van. Fern visits Dave, who now lives with his son, and he invites her to move in with them, but again she rejects a stable lifestyle and leaves. The cycle resumes: she works in the assembly chain, then, during the Christmas holidays, she drives to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. The nomads pay tribute to Swankie, who has died. Fern tells Bob why she never left the gypsum plant after her husband died: out of loyalty to him. She also tells him that her husband loved Empire and she stayed to honor him even after he died; and Bob tells her that he had a son who committed suicide and he spends his life helping others in order to honor him. Fern drives to the ghost town of Empire to get rid of the items that she had stored there and she visits her old workplace with tears in her eyes and walks down the deserted streets to her old home. Then she starts driving again on the long straight highway.
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