Written and Directed by Chloé Zhao
Based on Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, Derek Endres
Like the ring around her finger, Fern (McDormand) is bound by the dreams of Empire that her late husband lived for most of their life together. After his prolonged illness and the factory keeping their town in existence closed down, she just existed for a few years, remembering him. Then she decided to sell much of what she had left, buy a van and live a nomadic existence. Her solitary pain contrasted with the beauty of the center of America leads to a drifting existence. She sets wanders in and out of the lives of a set collective of people living off the land in vans and mobile homes, seeking seasonal work just to keep the journey going.
Every one of the people she meets has a story to tell. Some of them are similar, all of them bound by a sadness. Many of them have options to live off of the grace of friends and family. This is not the road they choose, though. Something is broken in these nomads. Something else is totally alive in the prospect of what’s just a little farther down the road.
Nomadland is an incredibly moving experience. The value in each person we meet is humble and limited by the gravity of their past and present. They hold pictures and memories, and they value economizing space in their mobile homes. We see that Fern and her friend Linda May hold many jobs and do each of them well. They could stay working in one place or rent free in others. This is not what living is about for them.
The depth of feeling in Nomadland is almost unbearable. We see a connection between Fern and David (Strathairn) early in the film. We hope it can lead somewhere for both of them. We have a feeling, though, that it never will. Strathairn’s character seems a continuation of his nomad in Walkaway Joe. Filled with regret over his past, and hopeful of the future at once. Fern and David deserve one another, but it’s clear something is in the way of just plain acceptance. Once again, he provides the perfect supporting performance to another great lead.
As for McDormand, what else can be said about her? She is without a doubt the most courageous actress of our time. While others concentrate on being looking good for the camera as they age, she concentrates on being a real person. She allows the camera to see her soul in every moment of the story. The honesty is striking and often takes one’s breath away. She fits right in with people from the original, non-fiction book, Swankie, Bob Wells and Linda May. It feels as though her life depends on intersecting with her fellow travellers as much as being on her own most of the time.
The real purpose of Nomadland is the fact that there is no one moment that defines this movie. Writer and director Zhao has sprinkled in many significant moments throughout the story, allowing the viewer to realize all of these people who exist outside of our sitelines have value, in each other and within themselves. There are several scenes throughout that will bring tears for the beauty that they describe they have seen in their lives, and the things they expect they could see tomorrow.
Then there are stretches of silence for Fern. Much of the film just shows the beauty of this country that allows people to wander in and out of their lives, not tied down to anything but their own memories. It’s enough to bring tears even as one writes it all down to describe it, poorly, compared to what the mind can remember.
Nomadland is not a life many could live. It’s filled with too much uncertainty and it relies on the kindness of others, even to find a place to park for the night. It’s more prevalent than this viewer realized. This film has opened my eyes and filled them with tears. It’s hard to tell, though, if they are tears of sadness, joy or the beauty of a life that will go right by before one realize it.
(***** out of *****)