Writer / director Chloé Zhao has crafted an intimate character study with just the right amount of melancholy with her film “Nomadland,” a timely portrait of restless outcasts who live their lives on the road. The story follows the widowed Fern (Frances McDormand), who has started living in her van in the wake of an economic recession. The rural Nevada town she called home for many years has died, the factory where she was employed is now shuttered, and the local residents have bailed and left it all behind. Facing an uncertain future with limited choices, Fern hits the road as a nomad.
The woman travels around the West, taking odd jobs to keep busy and put some dollars in her pocket. Along the way, she encounters her own little mobile family of folks in similar situations, many of them forgotten outcasts from society. They help each other out as best they can, and it’s a lovely sentiment and celebration of the human spirit.
Zao has a deep understanding of the unconventional, transient society that’s seen a boom during recent hard times in our country, and she treats her restless characters with a poetic respect. Zao captures a realism from her supporting cast of non-actors. There are thousands of Americans living this way, and it’s fascinating to get a glimpse into their daily routines.
McDormand is terrific as a proud woman who isn’t afraid of hard work. She tells people that she’s not homeless, just houseless, and reminds them that there is a difference. It’s a great role for the actor, and she fits the part perfectly. As she finds herself, Fern starts to realize that living in her van may be the life she prefers after all.
The narrative pace screeches to a halt when Fern goes back to visit the people in her former life, including her sister and a fellow nomad (David Strathairn) who’s taken up with his adult son. The film is much more interesting when she’s alone in her van on the road or camping in the desert, but maybe that’s the point. Just like Fern, the storytelling loses its way when trying to assimilate back into a rooted existence.
Fern discovers herself through solitude, and she’s at total peace when alone. Therein lies the beauty of “Nomoadland”: life is a journey, and we all take different (and sometimes more difficult) paths to realizing our own key to happiness.