Synopsis: A woman in her sixties embarks on a journey through the Western United States after losing everything in the Great Recession, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Angela Reyes, Carl R. Hughes
Director: Chloé Zhao
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Remember back in the day when the daydream was to leave your job and most everything behind and just travel the country, if not the entire globe? If money was no object, you could just take the time to explore the nooks and crannies of this great land and hopefully meet others along the way who were also up for adventure. Sleeping under the stars, waking up in one state and going to sleep in another, the possibilities were endless. That wasn’t your dream? Well, for a time it was mine and I know I wasn’t the only person that wished for even a glimmer of a summer to see what that life on a road with no destination would be like. Double that now after we’ve all been cooped up inside for close to a year with little in the way of travel.
Watching Nomadland was a bit of a surreal experience because Fern (Frances McDormand, Promised Land) is, in a way, following the guide I had laid out for myself…just under different circumstances. Displaced from her home after she literally lost her zip code, the sixty-something widow didn’t have much to begin with but was making ends meet anyway. Now, she lives out of her unheated camper van and is working a seasonal shift at an Amazon warehouse when she decides to hit the road in search of something…more. What that is she doesn’t know but it’s out there somewhere and all she has is time to find it, she just has a few pit stops along the way.
That’s the basic premise of Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao’s adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 novel which uncovered the rising number of past middle-aged Americans who have eschewed the trivialities of living in a brick-and-mortar dwelling for something more flexible. They travel the country in vans, campers, etc. working odd jobs to pay for their passage before moving on to the next location. Life is constantly in flux and they like it that way because there’s beauty in that consistency of change. Fern finds a group of kindred spirits after attending the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a two-week event in the Arizona desert that brings together like-minded nomads to share stories, tips, and trades. Mostly, though, this is a solo journey with its own perils to encounter and deal with along the route.
Just as this nomadic life isn’t for everyone, I can see how the film may present some challenges to viewers as well. In my household, the final verdict on the film was decidedly divided. I found it to be a rewarding watch that fed into my introverted self, speaking to the type of solitary journey I’d like to take at some point in my life. For my partner, Fern’s aloofness throughout the film and her tendency to keep others so far at a distance, even those closest to her, was hard to accept. I actually think Fern’s restlessness is one of Nomadland’s greatest strengths because, in the end, only she knows when it’s time to pull over. Without anything to tie her down, she has control over her life whereas the last few years she had little autonomy over what her choices were. There’s inspiration to be had in watching that journey unfold for Fern and maybe even a tinge a jealousy for viewers that she can pack it all in if she wants and be gone.
Adding to the film’s ultra-realism is the symbiotic collaboration between McDormand and Zhao. Zhao created this story out of the themes from Bruder’s source novel and McDormand’s character sprung to life from there. That’s how Fern (or is it really Fran?) actually went to work these jobs and is acting alongside nonprofessional actors that often shine brighter than their two-time Oscar-winning co-star. Many times these experiments in using “real” people can backfire significantly but Zhao has an eye like Dorothea Lange or Ansel Adams in capturing the “true America” without it ever feeling like they are acting. Most of the time, they are just playing themselves, like Fern’s bubbly co-worker Linda May or Nomadland‘s true lightning bolt standout, Swankie. I was so taken with this side character that came out of nowhere, I’m not sure how much of it was built off of Zhao’s script but her showcase scene with McDormand is one of the highlights of the film.
If there are stretches where Nomadland runs a bit on fumes, it’s not surprising they’re the passages when Fern isn’t on the road. A trip to her estranged family and a visit to a friend she’s met along the way (David Strathairn, The Devil Has a Name) that may have found his forever home are nicely played but have an itch to them that Fern (and McDormand) seems eager to scratch and be done with. There’s a tension present that I’m sure Zhao intended but could have let the air out a bit more, if only to allow McDormand to be slightly more open to her fellow actors in these scenes. She’s so tightly wound when she feels cornered that it can be uncomfortable to watch her work through her unease.
There’s just no other actress out there like McDormand, nor could I imagine this film being made without her. The performance is as good as you’ve heard and as complicated as you might think, taking into consideration all the prep she had to do before, during, and after living and working in these conditions while also remembering that this is acting at the same time. That’s the thing, though, it never quite seems like McDormand is “acting” and while the actress has disappeared into roles before (like her Oscar winning part in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) in Nomadland it feels like we’re watching Fran, not Fern, take this journey. Some may find that hard to wrap their head around and call it “just playing herself” but I found it to be a fascinating study of both the character and the actress. It almost seems like Fern is a parallel version of McDormand, with the two sharing a number of the same qualities but diverging in several key aspects. No matter what, count on McDormand being a leading contender for her third Best Actress Oscar this year.
Releasing in theaters and on Hulu, Nomadland explores a different side of the American experience that we should be able to say is unfamiliar but has sadly become more commonplace the longer our economy devalues the middle and lower class. Many of the nomads that were explored in the book and inspired the movie started their movement by choice, but a large number did it as a way to survive losing their homes and other possessions. Through Zhao’s imagined narrative, McDormand’s performance brimming with unforced realism, and a colorful supporting cast of amateur actors, a strong message on the survival of the human spirit is delivered with regal beauty.