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In 'Nomadland,' Discover The Joy And Sorrow Of The Road Less Traveled

Restless and tired of ordinary life, Fern (Frances McDormand) takes to the road in <em>Nomadland.</em>
Searchlight Pictures
Restless and tired of ordinary life, Fern (Frances McDormand) takes to the road in Nomadland.

Chloé Zhao's amazing new movie, Nomadland, begins with an elegy for Empire, Nev., one of those old-fashioned company towns that thrived during America's post-World War II manufacturing boom. But in 2011, in the wake of a devastating global recession, the local gypsum mine shut down and Empire became a ghost town, displacing hundreds of residents in the process.

Empire was a real place, but the main character in this movie is a fictional creation: She's a widow in her 60s named Fern, and she's played in a remarkable performance by Frances McDormand. We see Fern packing her things and leaving Empire behind. Over the next year or so we'll follow as she takes on work wherever she can find it, driving across the U.S. in a large van that will also be her home.

The journalist Jessica Bruder wrote about Empire and the larger phenomenon of modern-day American nomads in her 2017 book Nomadland, from which this movie was freely adapted. The film sets Fern adrift among these real-life transient workers, several of whom were featured in Bruder's book, and who tell their stories again here. It's hard to imagine another actor who could share the same spaces with them as casually as McDormand does, whether Fern is bubble-wrapping packages at an Amazon warehouse or mingling with other travelers in a crowded trailer park.

One of her new friends, Linda May, describes how crushing poverty almost led her to take her own life; fortunately, the presence of her two dogs made her reconsider. Another of the movie's memorable real-life characters is a gruff but compassionate woman named Swankie, who helps Fern change a flat tire and scolds her for not having a spare.

It's not the last time Fern will have car trouble. At one point, her van breaks down and she has to take it in for repairs. The mechanic recommends she skip the repairs and buy a different vehicle, but Fern declines, saying, "I can't do that. ... I live in there. It's my home."

Fern's use of the word "home" is telling. When someone offers her a place to stay for the night, she replies, "I'm not homeless; I'm just houseless." Without romanticizing a difficult way of life, Nomadland makes clear that not everyone hits the road due to financial desperation alone. Some, like Fern, have grown restless and tired of ordinary life for reasons they can't fully explain. As the movie follows her across the country, from Badlands National Park in South Dakota to a Nebraska sugar-beet field ready for harvest, we come to understand some sense of Fern's liberation but also the hardships of adapting to her new life.

The America we see in Nomadland is vast and open, stretching on forever toward horizons that are gorgeously shot by the cinematographer Joshua James Richards. But this America can also be a surprisingly small world, where Fern keeps running into the same people, who are headed to the same places in search of work, depending on the season.

The person she runs into most often is a guy named Dave, played by a charming David Strathairn, the only other name actor in this otherwise non-professional cast. Dave clearly has a crush on Fern, but she gently rebuffs his puppy-dog-ish overtures in a few sweetly funny scenes that almost push the movie into romantic-comedy territory.

Nomadland may have a somber Steinbeckian grandeur, but in these moments it also shows a disarmingly playful, even experimental streak. Some may wonder why writer-director Zhao didn't simply make a straightforward documentary about nomadic life. But there's something about the way she uses McDormand's star power, blurring fiction and nonfiction techniques, that gets at something deeper and more mysterious. As with The Rider, her 2018 film about a Native American rodeo cowboy, she invites the people in front of her camera into a creative collaboration, taking the stuff of their everyday lives and bending it into something strange and new. It's a fittingly inventive approach for a movie about people who have dramatically reinvented themselves.

Nomadland seems to understand loss — material, emotional and spiritual loss — in a way that few movies do. That may not sound like comfort viewing in these times of heartbreak and uncertainty, but this isn't a despairing film.

Nomadland takes its time sinking in, but sink in it does. When I watched the movie a third time recently, I found it emotionally overpowering in ways that I'm still trying to get a handle on. It might have been the delicate ache of Ludovico Einaudi's music that reduced me to tears, or the bone-deep conviction of McDormand's performance. Or it might just be that Nomadland seems to understand loss — material, emotional and spiritual loss — in a way that few movies do.

That may not sound like comfort viewing in these times of heartbreak and uncertainty, but this isn't a despairing film. It suggests that the road less traveled can yield joy as well as sorrow, and that it can fulfill a person's need for both solitude and community. We don't know what lies ahead for Fern by movie's end, but we do know that her journey isn't over.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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