Chloé Zhao's Nomadland is a film of small moments set against the vast expanse of the American West, where people who feel abandoned by conventional society have created their own self-contained, always roaming communities. It isn't really an epic, at least in the traditional sense of the word, but it feels like one, and it's dealing with themes of displacement and aimlessness that are a distinct part of this country's DNA.
This is Zhao's third feature, following 2015's Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2017's The Rider, and they form a remarkable triptych of stories about people on the fringes. In adapting a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, Zhao seamlessly merges documentary-like authenticity with scripted drama, here putting award-winning actors like Frances McDormand and David Strathairn alongside real people with no acting experience. It's the kind of approach that could go wrong in so many different ways, but it never feels like an exercise in dramatic manipulation or cheap exploitation.
McDormand plays Fern, who we first meet as she's picking through boxes in a storage unit, leaving most of the contents behind. She's childless, her husband has died, and she has moved out of a Nevada town that was decimated when its manufacturing plant shut down. Even its zip code no longer exists. She works at an Amazon warehouse during the Christmas rush but moves around the rest of the year, living out of a van that she's retrofitted into a home on wheels.
The movie doesn't follow a clear-cut narrative arc, instead unfolding like a series of vignettes as Fern bounces from one short-term job to another and bumps into other wanderers along the way. She works at a roadside shop that sells rocks and gems, in the kitchen at Wall Drug in South Dakota, on the maintenance staff of a campground. Strathairn is the only other recognizable actor in the film, playing a man who is also traveling alone and who has clearly fallen in love with Fern. But she holds him at arm's length, even when he decides to give up the nomad existence and invites her to finally settle down with him.
What's perhaps most subversive about Nomadland is that it never treats Fern's itinerancy as a coping mechanism for the tragedies in her past, or as a pathology to be cured. The movie resists the easy narrative route of giving her a stable home and a conventional love interest as a means of somehow fixing any of her perceived problems. There is a sadness at the core of the film, and the sense that the American economy has left behind so many capable and hardworking people. But Fern also encounters beauty and compassion and genuine friendship on the road. She's a wanderer, either by nature or by circumstance, and that's what ultimately gives her peace.
There aren't many working actors as unfussy as McDormand is on-screen, and there's never a moment where we don't completely believe the person we're looking at is completely authentic. So much of the film involves her simply listening to other peoples' stories, with Zhao's camera holding on McDormand's face as these folks who have become her support system talk about the losses and challenges that inspired them to embrace the so-called itinerant lifestyle.
Nearly every scene in Nomadland has the immediacy and spontaneity of real life. We look on as Fern and two of her friends go to an RV show and walk through motorhomes that are mansions compared to their cramped domiciles. When one of their fellow nomads dies, everyone stands around a campfire and throws rocks into it, a symbolic gesture of remembrance. A box of Fern's old dishware gets broken, and we see remnants of her past life in a pile, shattered on the ground. The film also deals with the nitty-gritty details of living on the road — how to cook and sleep and go to the bathroom in a van, and what happens when you're in the middle of nowhere and have a flat tire or a medical emergency.
Nomadland is also incredibly perceptive about the nature of time and chance, how someone you might brush past without a thought can one day become a major player. But it's about so much more — about economic anxiety, about people relying on the land and on each other, about the complicated process of grief. Fern has found herself on a never-ending road, a rural cul-de-sac that she just keeps circling, and that seems to be the reality for so many people in our country. And yet they're not totally hopeless. The film may be set in the campgrounds, trailer parks and truck stops that have long been symbols of lost souls and dead ends, but in this film, they also represent a certain kind of freedom. ♦
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
Streaming on Hulu Feb. 19