The attempt to portray something real comes of cliché these days. You imagine an ambitious Hollywood climber in an expensive suit trying to convince his bosses to look past the glossy, bloated blockbusters and bring something authentic and true to the screen. That climber would be quickly shoved aside since those small, authentic movies never make money.
Anecdote aside, director Chloe Zhao and star Frances McDormand have done exactly that with Nomadland and brought forth an authentic slice of American life and portrayed it in a non-political, hopeful and non-Hollywood way.
McDormand stars as Fern, a recently widowed Nevada woman who makes the conscious decision to live in her van and travel around for work. The life of a modern nomad comes naturally to Fern, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t need help. Her friend Linda invites her to a desert gathering of other nomads led by Bob Wells (a real-life nomad). There, she learns how to adapt to her new life and the steps she needs to take in order to live.
The film never views this lifestyle as a mistake and never looks at its subjects dispassionately. Some nomads came that way because of necessity, some by choice and others because they have dealt with the hand that life has given them. These people are the true essential workers of society, doing the jobs that Americans feel they are above but are a vital cog in the world we have grown accustom.
During an information session at the camp, the virtues of various poop buckets are discussed. Goods are traded back and forth and given real value. Something as basic as a pot holder or a series of plates gains value because of the scarcity of possessions.
Zhao never overtly asks the viewer if they could participate in this lifestyle, but the question organically arrives regardless. It would be easy to view these people as lesser, unintelligent and living off the grid on the fringes of society. Zhao never makes any character less than human and forces you to come to grips that these people are not column A or column B. The entire film lives in the gray, but that gray focuses on humanity and goodness.
McDormand can go so big in so many of her roles that it comes across as a minor miracle when she does so little (size-wise). Fern doesn’t scream, she doesn’t lash out and she doesn’t judge. She is attempting to live her life how she wants to live it. McDormand gives every saved trinket reference and every obstacle in her way the gravity it deserves without overselling the struggle. When she explains to a mechanic how she lives in her van, she doesn’t scream and she doesn’t plead. She knows capitalism is how they live and she understands the realities she faces to co-exist in their world.
The supporting cast features a fun mix of non-actors including Wells, Linda May and scene-stealing sensation Swankie – all playing a version of themselves. David Strathairn plays another fellow nomad, David, who plays whatever version of a romantic interest this film tries. The interplay between Fern and David is respectful flirtation and admiration. There are no grand gestures and there are no long-winded romantic speeches, instead replaced with polite requests and gentle questions. Strathairn is great in a role that requires little more than presence. His thin frame and ruggedness fit him snuggly into the film’s world.
Other than Zhao and McDormand, the real star is cinematographer Joshua James Richards. The beauty of the American west is presented in natural light and true respect for the locations. Every shot is beautiful and any time Fern shows up to a beautiful place and takes a moment to soak it in, we are right there with her.
It’s easy to say that nothing really happens in 108 minutes, but so much happens at the same time. While I could easily sum up the theme of the movie in 10 seconds, I would struggle to explain the whole plot in five minutes time. Zhao has created something simple and poignant without pitying any character.
This film is a true revelation and I would be surprised if anything beat it out for my favorite film of the year.