Driving down a lonely highway. Floating in a creek. Gazing at the sweeping vistas of the American West. Writer and director Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” is comprised of many of these quiet moments. The film serves as a character study for Fern (Frances McDormand), an older woman who, after losing her job and her home in the recession, hits the road in her van and starts living the life of a nomad. Zhao’s film isn’t set on following a conventional narrative plot structure, instead allowing Fern to drift in and out of these moments, just as she drifts further from conventional society as the film progresses.
Inspired by Jessica Bruder’s book “Nomad: Surviving America in the 21st Century,” the country that Zhao depicts as she follows Fern on her travels is one that is equal parts daunting and beautiful. Zhao takes us from the laid-back intimacy of RV Parks to the awe-inspiring views in the Badlands, the epic landscapes surrounding Fern standing in contrast to the cramped confines of her van, and her film takes on a tone that is lonely and somber, but not sad. McDormand delivers an incredibly understated performance. Fern is also a widow, her husband having passed away before the start of the film, and now she has the freedom to discover what the right life is for her—just her. Fern is kind and largely upbeat, but McDormand’s face tells the story of the hardships she has experienced, and there is a sense of loss ever-present behind that exterior.
One of the fascinating aspects of “Nomadland” is that Zhao surrounds McDormand not with other professional actors, but with real-life nomads. David Strathairn is the only other principle performer in the film, playing David, a fellow nomad who forms a bond with Fern throughout their travels. These other nomads serve not just as companions, but mentors to Fern, who is initially rather naïve. Zhao depicts Fern adjusting and learning how to live on the road, from learning how to change a tire to watching YouTube videos about the nomad lifestyle. These nomads, who including Charlene Swankie, Linda May, and Bob Wells, are revelations, and both their performances and the way Zhao shoots them—allowing them to monologue and keeping the camera focused on their faces—gives the film a documentary-life feel at times.
And they have some heart-breaking things to say. These people are all outcasts from society, and they are reflections of how America has failed its working class citizens. They all have a story, and Zhao looks at them all through an extremely compassionate lens. They either work and work and work and then die, or work and work and work and then have everything snatched away in an instant, like what happened to Fern. One of the elderly nomads talks about how she has worked for decades, virtually her entire life, only to check her social security and find that it was worth only a few hundred dollars. Toward the beginning of the film, while at a job interview, it is recommended to Fern that she look into early retirement, but she says that she can’t live off that—and besides, she wants to work. But they don’t know what to do with her.
This critique, however, while it is sharp at the start of the film, doesn’t dominate the entire work. In the first 15 or 20 minutes of the movie, I could almost feel the wave of hopelessness coming, about to wash over me at any second, as we watch Fern leave her home in Nevada, take a temporary job in an Amazon warehouse, struggle to find work after her contract ends, and be accosted by a family she knows in a store, the daughter asking Fern if she is homeless (Fern responds that she is not homeless, but “houseless. Not the same thing, right?”). The loss and hardship that so many faced during that recession a little over ten years ago feels just as prevalent today, with so many people having lost so much as a result of the pandemic. But Zhao does something beautiful and unexpected with this film instead. Fern never wallows in her loss. When she fails to find a place for her in society, she pushes on, and manages to find a meaningful life elsewhere, to the point where when places open up for her, she chooses the nomad lifestyle over a life of comfort and stability. Her van may not be a house, but it is her home. Fern chooses to live her life to the fullest, and as unglamorous as her life is, it’s filled with adventure. “Nomadland” gives in to convention a few times from a storytelling standpoint, but it always manages to twist away at the last second. It challenges the viewer to not waste any more time to start living the life you want to live—it’s exactly the message we need to hear right now.
“Nomadland” will be released in theaters on December 4. Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated R. 4.5 out of 5 stars.