Nomadland is the kind of movie that makes you think you’re just looking at beautiful scenery and listening to music, but at the end you realize that you’ve been told a story.
Fern (Frances McDormand) is brave but scared. She is a former resident of a place called Empire, a symbiotic town-and-business situation… until the recession of 2008, when the entire place closed down and even its zip code went out of use. Her husband having passed, and with no children, Fern takes to living in her van. It is and isn’t a choice; she doesn’t have much in the way of job prospects.
Fern travels around the American west, taking seasonal work at Amazon and at campgrounds. She connects with other people who live in their vans as well, and who form ever-changing communities. These people are mostly middle-aged, like Fern, and they are mostly alone.
The film feels less like a narrative than an observation, but not in the avant-garde “slice of life” sense. Rather, each scene does have a narrative drive and purpose; that purpose is just to drive a feeling, maybe more than a story. But, through the patchwork of people and places that come in and out of Fern’s life throughout the film, a story does take shape. It’s one that is universal: being weird, being the outsider, choosing freedom, connecting with others, losing them, and figuring out how to move on.
And move, we do. Across beautiful landscapes, back and forth through time as characters share their memories and depart only to meet back up again, and certainly through our emotions. Unlike some of the more dramatic yet supposedly emotionally real movies in film history, Nomadland is utterly realistic. Moving monologues that would be so overdone by an actor are delivered without fuss by the real nomads who populate this film, and that is exactly what makes it so poignant. It’s almost a cliche, and an oxymoron, to call a movie real. But Nomadland feels like it is.
Based on the book by Jessica Bruder and directed by Chloé Zhao, this film came out last year and made a splash at film festivals. Deservingly so: Frances McDormand kicks ass. The story is beautiful to look at and to feel. The music, ranging from orchestral to folk, is gorgeous. Indeed, the film emphasizes folk songs and poetry, ultimately feeling something like a poem itself.
Nomadland is a social commentary, showing the plight of the average worker in post-housing bubble America and portraying a group of people who try to live off the land and outside the capitalist system. But, more broadly, it’s about the difference between running away from something and going on adventure, a line that is crossed with great difficulty and greater courage. Nomadland inspires, and encourages the viewer to wonder what else is “out there.”
Nomadland feels like an indie movie, but it delivers big visuals and even bigger emotions. Watch this and you’ll want to hit the road for your own courageous adventure.