Frances McDormand is a popular actor because she’s talented, certainly. She's also relatable to many people. A friend and former photographer I worked with in California once told me a story about using a restroom and realizing McDormand was in the stall next to her; they had a funny conversation and the Oscar-winning actress came to her rescue by reaching under the stall and delivering an extra roll of toilet paper. Onscreen, McDormand has a naturalistic presence and a kind of working class salt, all of which makes her perfectly cast in the film “Nomadland” by director Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”), now streaming on Hulu.
Based on the 2017 book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by journalist Jessica Bruder, this quietly emotional movie has been building hype for months, so you may already know the plot. Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (McDormand) travels solo by van among a community of itinerant, aging American blue collar workers who traverse the country, braving the weather and living in RV parks, to follow various job seasons.
Nicely filmed, with abundant use of magic hour light and wide-angle shots of the American West, Zhao sets things up quickly. Within the first few scenes, we see McDormand living in her cozy white van, peeing in a field just off a vast expanse of highway, then working within a seemingly endless Amazon fulfillment center – the type of place many people haven’t witnessed thanks to the company's secretive policies. The name of her van is Vanguard, which feels like a subtle nod to this nomadic lifestyle as an increasingly likely future for many, when globalization and climate change promises to create even greater numbers of nomads struggling to survive worldwide.
The question I found myself asking pretty early on: Would this film have worked best as narrative drama or documentary? Zhao has chosen a kind of hybrid approach – setting McDormand among actual transient workers whose real-life stories lend authenticity to their campfire chats. The director clearly is working in a similar vein as a lifestyle journalist, not passing judgment but trying to document meaningful little moments and show how they represent a trend or zeitgeist. But rather than get bogged down in sociopolitical context, Zhao seems entranced by Fern and those for whom wanderlust becomes a defining priority.
Fern is the kind of person who can never settle down and be locked into the American dream of family, ownership and debt. And everyone she meets on the road seems to have a different reason for the same aversion. “One of the things I love most about this life is there’s no final goodbyes,” a man tells her during a moving personal story about his son who has committed suicide.
It may sound melancholy, and it is somewhat, but the movie spends more time capturing the can-do attitude and thrifty grit of everyday folks who find beauty in an existence that would be frightening for many due to its lack of security, grounding, or just plain loneliness. These travelers don’t own much but they feel more in touch with the landscape of the country itself and its people. As anyone who has traveled extensively knows, it’s not easy but there is a deep beauty in living in the present with more of an active connection to nature – the kind of thing people stuck in dead-end office jobs daydream about: Getting away, living each day.
There aren't any easy answers. This is mostly an older demographic featured, which presents its own set of concerns. While we see Fern dealing with flat tires in the middle of nowhere and other minor emergencies, it’s the more concerning health issues that inevitably happen with age that make this lifestyle feel like a greater risk, one which cannot be sustained forever. Yet for increasing numbers of people it's the only option, whether for economic or spiritual reasons. (I'm not convinced this story wouldn't have been better as a straight documentary, though.)
Throughout, Zhao maintains a narrow focus on the quiet dignity of Fern, using emotional scenes that are not overwritten, while little daily moments convey the kind of sacrifice it takes to maintain a life in constant motion. Like Fern’s adoring sister, Zhao seems to view her protagonist as carrying forward the long American tradition of pioneers. If anything, the director goes too far into romantic territory, downplaying the drudgery and pain of the kinds of jobs Fern has to endure, like at Amazon.
At the center of the movie, McDormand steadily digs toward the emotional center of her character while her face only ever betrays a steely resilience. She always looks genuinely as curious in the brief personal stories of her fellow travelers as the audience, which probably could've used more of the real characters. Subtle and measured, McDormand still delivers one of the memorable performances of the year, which could earn her another Oscar.
The movie has its faults, but it’s interesting to watch a film that functions as a kind of American tone poem for 21st century impermanence, especially during a time when many of us would love nothing better than to get out of dodge and hit the open road.