Editor’s note: This review first appeared as part of Polygon’s coverage of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated for the film’s streaming release.
Frances McDormand seems like an anomaly in the world of writer-director Chloé Zhao, whose most high-profile credit, Marvel’s Eternals, has yet to be released. Zhao’s films thus far — Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider — both paint as realistic a portrait of the world as possible without becoming documentaries. They almost exclusively star first-time actors, usually playing versions of themselves. They certainly don’t feature anyone as recognizable as McDormand, who recently won an Oscar for her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But for all the star power McDormand brings to Zhao’s latest film, Nomadland, based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the story Zhao weaves doesn’t buckle under that pressure. It also doesn’t feel any less real.
Fern (McDormand) is a nomad. Having left her home in Empire, Nevada, after its economic collapse — an opening card informs the audience that even the Empire ZIP code was discontinued — she lives out of her van, taking odd jobs to make ends meet, most notably in an Amazon warehouse. As one job ends and she prepares to move on, a fellow nomad suggests she come to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a gathering of nomads in the desert, which will provide not only a sense of community, but how-to seminars for those new to the lifestyle.
Apart from David Strathairn as another nomad who constantly crosses Fern’s path, the rest of the characters are, as in Zhao’s other films, real people playing versions of themselves. (The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous really exists, too.) Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells, who all feature in Bruder’s book, move in and out of Fern’s orbit, helping her find new jobs or places to park, and helping the audience understand what would compel someone to take on the nomadic lifestyle.
The specific reasons why they’ve chosen to become nomads differ, but they all boil down to a sense of abandonment by or rejection of the American Dream. One woman tells a story of a friend who died before being able to take a trip on the boat he worked so hard to buy. May dreams of building an “Earthship,” a sustainable home. As for Fern, Zhao (who also scripted the film) slowly teases out her reasons for traveling, letting scattered beats coalesce until, when things are finally made explicit, the audience has already had a chance to piece together why Fern has chosen to uproot her life.
Like The Rider, Nomadland is exploring a larger theme, but there’s no sense of moralizing, or some greater lesson for Fern to learn. There aren’t any grand revelations or twists to juice up the drama. (There is an eventual, tentative romance, but that development is in the spirit of Zhao’s exploration of human connection.) The grief that drives Fern is only gradually revealed, through objects and moments, and is addressed in tandem with the pros and cons of the nomadic lifestyle. Fern can drive wherever she wants, and often meets many of the same nomads, but she’s still ultimately traveling alone, and further isolated by the fact that her friends and family from her pre-nomadic life can’t entirely understand what she’s doing.
That sense of bittersweetness is even more potently conveyed by the time Zhao spends with the nomads around Fern. Fern is the film’s main character, played by its most recognizable star, but Nomadland is ultimately both about her journey and about the way the feelings she’s reckoning with are echoed within the nomad community. The few big moments and monologues Zhao does make space for are reserved for other characters, fleshing out the world around Fern and allowing for gut-punch moments that don’t require uncharacteristic dramatic concessions from her, or from the plot.
Cinematographer Joshua James Richards uses his command of color to tangibly evoke both warmth (in the myriad sunsets) and coldness (the sterility of the Amazon shipping facility), and he helps showcase the incredibly moving performances of the real-life nomads who surround McDormand. Swankie and Wells are especially remarkable as they bring their real, lived experiences to play, grounding the two moments that veer closest to the romanticism that the film otherwise avoids.
The journey Zhao has crafted is marvelous, exploring literal peaks and valleys as well as emotional ones. Though Fern’s story is made up, the world through which she’s traveling is real, made all the more striking by the rest of the cast and the little, seemingly insignificant moments Zhao chooses to linger on. In one such moment, Strathairn’s character kneels to get the best possible shot he can of Fern standing in front of a giant dinosaur statue. There’s something joyfully tender about the scene: The light is fading, and he’s using a tiny flip phone, but it’s evident just how much he cares. That feeling of attentiveness and empathy runs throughout the entire film, easily distinguishing it as one of 2020’s best.
Nomadland is now available to stream on Hulu.