Filmmaker Chloé Zhao opens Nomadland on a tight closeup of Fern’s face—a woman we might chance to meet any day of the week. Because she is played by Frances McDormand there is no better way to establish a connection between her and us in the audience. We know she is genuine; there is no artifice here.
Fern is leaving a town so desolate (since the closing of a factory) that its zip code has been retired. She puts in time at the local Amazon warehouse, collects her pay and retreats to a modest van. She’s not homeless, she explains; she’s houseless, and there’s all the difference in the world.
Fern has learned to survive on her own since the death of her husband. She keeps to herself but has no trouble making friends at RV campsites and communities along the road. Occasionally someone will reach out to her and she pulls back, unwilling to make commitments beyond a casual friendship.
Nomadland is sort of a modern-day, existential equivalent of Walden Pond set in the American West. It’s wistful and often heartbreaking, but never because of a dramatic contrivance. The film flows naturally, organically, and carries us along to a place where honesty and satisfaction intersect. The time that author Jessica Bruder spent on the road with 21st century nomads for her book has paid off for writer-director Zhao, who adapted the screenplay. The promise she showed in The Rider three years ago is fulfilled here…with a little help from one of the finest actresses on the planet.