Chloé Zhao‘s Nomadland offers up a dusty mirror to a side of America that is rarely seen or heard about. After a significant plant gets shut down due to lack of production, the townsfolk who rely heavily on its job creation find themselves displaced with nowhere to go but the open road. Fern (Frances McDormand) finds herself in this predicament, and throughout the film, she ventures out to various camps and odd jobs to pursue something better for her life.
Nomadland, in a vacuum, is a film about finding your value in life and whatever that entails. Not even Fern herself knows what she’s searching for, but you can’t help but relate to her struggle on some level. She also doesn’t mind struggling; in fact, Fern evidently welcomes it and takes it in stride. It is an unnervingly fascinating exercise in rooting for a character that doesn’t want to get better, which in turn, makes watching her refuse help all the more frustrating. “I’m not homeless. I’m houseless.” Fern proudly declares while at the same time setting the tone for her character and denouncing western materialism.
She has a sister, Dolly (Melissa Smith), who seemingly lives comfortably and encourages Fern to stay with her, but Fern rejects her offer. She’ll take her money, though, and promises to pay her back; meanwhile, I’m shaking my laptop screen, pleading with her to stay with her. I find that puzzling, but I don’t see it distasteful. After all, who am I to judge? Sure, an actual bed and running water beat the hell out of camping out in the boonies, but that’s me. Fern and Dolly have very few scenes together, but you can almost sense that her sister is vastly intrigued by her life choices in some fleeting moments. Does she envy Fern’s insatiable thirst for throwing caution to the wind and living free? The film hints at this by having Dolly defend Fern at every turn, and Melissa Smith plays it masterfully; you can even see a glint of admiration in her eyes.
The film also sports a wildly impressive cast of characters that feel real because most of them are actual real-life nomads from different places around the United States. Swankie (Charlene Swankie), for instance, turns in a memorable performance, oozing with charisma and so much depth that you’d think she’s been acting for over 30 years. That’s a credit to Chloé Zhao, who brings these characters to life with her excellent, authentic script. Bob Wells and Linda May also deliver strong performances, but Swankie steals the show on more than one occasion.
In another poignant scene, Linda reveals to Fern how the 2008 crash affected her mentally and how she contemplated suicide. Chloé Zhao frames this scene in tight and up-close shots; you can almost see the pain in Linda’s eyes as she recalls this turbulent episode in her life. “I went online to look at my social security benefits…it said $550, Fern I have worked my whole life.” It is a crushing scene, and Linda May absolutely kills it.
For all its gorgeous sweeping shots of the American midwest and Frances McDormand’s tour-de-force performance, there doesn’t seem to be much there to hold on to as a film, exploring themes of soul searching and self-discovery. I found myself wandering off a bit as the third act chugged along, and the emotional impact started to fade. It’s a lot of Frances McDormand walking around saying hi to people — by the way, did anyone notice how her character seems to know everyone? — which generally wouldn’t bother me, but I was expecting more. I came away thinking maybe a documentary would have been a better fit for this story, but then we’d lose the magic of Frances McDormand, and that’s not a compromise I’m willing to give up.
Nomadland is set to release in theaters and Hulu on February 19, 2021.
Chloé Zhao keeps the film moving as you feel like a tourist hopping from one camp to the next with Frances McDormand as your tour guide. Nomadland revels in stark realism, and the real people that are used really add to the atmosphere and overall feel of the film. The story ultimately becomes less interesting as it moves along, and eventually, you’ll just be watching for the fantastic cinematography.