Set against the vast expanse of the American West, Nomadland tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman who finds herself at a personal crossroads. Having recently lost her husband and her job, Fern decides that it’s time for her to start fresh by heading out onto the open road in her RV. However, as she explores the vast landscapes set before her, she quickly discovers that she’s not alone. Though she may move aimlessly through the seasons and seasonal jobs, she finds a new form of community amongst the like-minded nomads that welcome her home. As her soul is replenished, Fern also develops a relationship with David (David Strathairn), a man who may wish to play a greater role in her life than she’d initially expected.
Written and directed by Chloe Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me), Nomadland is a stunning piece that honours the souls of those who go unnoticed by a society too busy to notice them. Filled with quiet and intimate moments, Zhao weaves a story of humility and grace that doesn’t merely attempt to entertain.
Instead, Zhao’s fictional tale wants to show reality.
With an open style of filmmaking that ebs and flows with the surrounding landscapes, Zhao has created a story that moves like a traditional narrative yet feels true. By casting real-life nomads in key roles, she has clearly done her very best to tell a story that lives and breathes authenticity onscreen. (In fact, in order to help them gain a better understanding for the world they were bringing to life onscreen, Zhao even asked her cast and crew to live out of vans during the course of production.) Painting the lives of its ‘houseless’ characters with a loving brush, Zhao celebrates their pioneering spirit but also shows the challenges they face throughout their journey.
In many ways, Nomadland manages to highlight the overwhelming power of its surroundings yet never loses the value of every individual. Through his magnificent use of cinematography, Joshua James Richards reminds the viewer just how small they truly are when held up against the immensity of the American West. However, at the same time, when Fern encounters individuals along that way, they fill the screen in such a way as to acknowledge their importance.
Similarly the film’s central character, McDormand may be the biggest name within the film yet she plays Fern with such humility that she actually elevates those around her. Whereas many stars may look at this much screen time as an opportunity to put their talent on display, McDormand instead chooses to step back and allow these real people and their stories to shine.
Because, in Nomadland, every soul matters.
While acknowledging the struggles such as maintaining work and food, the most beautiful aspect of the film is the way that it celebrates those that have found sanctuary and salvation in a nomadic lifestyle. While many have bound their lives to mortgages and static jobs, Nomadland shows the refreshment of the soul that can take place when one untethers themselves from these sorts of demands. For example, as Fern ventures into the American West, she does so not to conquer new worlds but to reconnect with the deepest core of her identity. With the death of her husband and loss of her job, Fern’s old life suddenly feels motionless. Though she may have been left adrift, her heart now yearns for movement and independence.
However, Nomadland understands the old adage that ‘not all that wander are lost’.
As she builds new relationships amongst those whom she meets, Fern is struck by the deep sense of community that exists within the nomadic culture. Embedded with a profound sense of supporting one another, those that Fern encounter along her journey share a sense of camaraderie and love that is utterly remarkable. Characters such as Swankie and David provide relationship lifelines that feed Fern’s soul and show her the meaning of love yet they never ‘tie her down’. Though they may not be present with each other for long, their desire for freedom creates a loving connection that endures and uplifts. As a result, though she may not have a house to call her own, Fern absolutely believes that she has found a home amongst her newfound family.
Featuring what may be the most honest and open performance of McDormand’s career and some absolutely magnificent storytelling, it should come as no surprise if you hear Nomadland’s name called out when Oscar night (finally) arrives. In short, this is a very special film. Coming at a time when we all exist in isolation, Zhao highlights the importance of connecting with one another, especially when we find ourselves so alone.
Nomadland is now available on Hulu in the US and will be available in Canadian theatres on March 19th.
To hear our conversation on Nomadland, click here.