Film & TV

No Flash Needed: ‘Nomadland’ Shines on Its Own

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights ReservedFern (Frances McDormand) walks alone with a lantern as the sun sets.

Director: Chloé Zhao
Date: Feb. 19, 2021

R | 1 hour 50 minutes

Spending a year with Fern (Frances McDormand) in “Nomadland” as she travels with the seasons and job opportunities — a “modern-day nomad” in the sense of trailer parks, Amazon warehouses and Birkenstocks — is one word: riveting. 

Chloé Zhao’s (“The Rider,” “Songs My Brother Taught Me”) adaptation of journalist Jessica Bruder’s novel “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” feels fresh and freeing. The film is what you might expect from a story about a woman who leaves her life to find a new one on the road: there are the sweeping rural desert landscapes, melancholic orchestral soundtrack and small ghost towns lining the American West. 

But it’s also much more than that.

It’s Fern’s excitement about making more storage space in her van and having a spa day with her friend and real-life nomad, Linda May. It’s her mundane conversations with other nomads standing in line for lunch. It’s her against a fading blue and purple sky, frowning at her van’s flat tire and kicking it in frustration. 

“Nomadland,” released to Hulu Feb. 19, doesn’t need big drama or pretentious, arthouse-esque monologues. It’s simple and beautiful and painful and monotonous in the way everyone’s life is. The ordinary is enough on its own, and every shot proves it.

Frances McDormand in the film “Nomadland.” Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Early in the film, Fern runs into a friend and her two daughters, where she’s forced to defend that she’s OK. “No, not homeless,” Fern explains. “I’m just… houseless.”

While she’s tested on the same point by family members and other nomads, this isn’t a movie about a life-altering revelation or a self-discovering journey — and it isn’t lacking one, either. It’s her life and her survival. It’s her smiling at a video of hundreds of Swallows on a cliffside, cleaning public restrooms and offering strangers PB&Js. 

David Strathairn’s performance as Dave, Fern’s fellow nomad, friend and coworker at odd seasonal jobs, carries the balancing act of what this movie could’ve been and thankfully didn’t succumb to. “Nomadland” is decidedly not the typical travel movie where the main character is escaping their past, and Zhao artfully masters this 180-degree spin on the trope through a genuine understanding of modern-day nomads. 

The cast, including both the real-life nomads Swankie, Bob Wells, Linda May, plus Zhao and McDormand, also lived in RVs during production. 

When she cast real-life nomads to play themselves, she would “sit down with them and get to know them,” Zhao told Entertainment Weekly. “Hearing their stories, there might be elements where I go, ‘Oh, I think I could naturally incorporate that into the film.’ Then on the day, they would have a script as a blueprint, and they would change things to how they would say it. They’re very good at telling their own stories.”

Nomads Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn) sit side by side while eating a meal. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

At times, the film gets too forceful in proving how “OK” Fern is with her life everywhere, rather than being unhappy with her life somewhere permanent. The moments when she has to continually defend her lifestyle are tedious hiccups in the tranquil pacing. 

Although “Nomadland” teeters into the territory of the cliché suburban home decoration “Home is where the heart is,” McDormand’s striking performance of generous, honest and affable Fern levels out any slight pitfalls into the overdone theme of “alone doesn’t mean lonely.” 

The film, released almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, is sympathetic toward feelings of isolation and wanderlust, and it’s the perfect movie for this moment. 

Rated R, “Nomadland” is available on Hulu and in theaters everywhere.

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