Nomadland ★★★★★

Living as a nomad means sacrifice. It comes with uncertainty and a lack of stability that’s difficult to understand for outsiders. But for nomads, it’s a trade-off that brings beauty and freedom. They carry their home in their hearts and the people they love in their memories, and for many of them, it’s enough, as they make their way from town to town through the American West.

Nomadland is a tender look at this way of life, centering on Fern, a former resident of Empire, an industrial town brought to its knees by the Great Recession. After losing her husband and the house that meant so much to the both of them, Fern puts her belongings into storage and embarks on an open-road adventure behind the wheel of a rundown van that she has affectionately and resourcefully turned into a home. She makes a living taking odd jobs in the towns she passes, and lives by exploring the beautiful backdrops of her journey and by listening to the many stories of her fellow nomad friends. Her life is quiet and content, but the burden of her grief lives behind her eyes and every action. In a way, this journey of hers is a process of making amends with the past and finding purpose in a world that has left her behind.

Nomadland keeps a certain distance from the stories that it presents on screen. It stops itself from becoming overly sentimental and lets them speak for themselves instead. The joys and sorrows of Fern and the nomads she meets on the road are felt in a way that few films achieve. You’re there with them on their journey, see the beauty that they see and endure part of the hardships that they endure. Goodbyes are often the hardest, bringing more uncertainty and aloneness for Fern, but comfort comes with the knowledge she will always somehow run into a familiar face.

Frances McDormand plays Fern and she blends right in with the cast of mostly non-actors. Her performance is contained, as Fern tries to suppress the raw emotion that is waiting to burst. Her gestures express more than her words, and her smile radiates warmth and kindness. Not as experienced as the other nomads she meets, Fern doesn’t protest, but listens calmly and registers their advice. She is willing to learn, and that willingness also translates from McDormand’s own willingness to learn from real-life nomads.

I was expecting Nomadland to absolutely destroy me and I was right. The film is itself a difficult journey to undertake, showing the details of a lifestyle unfamiliar to many and that life rests in so much more than the familiar things we tend surround ourselves with. You learn a little about yourself along the way, and see that sometimes, the most difficult of circumstances can lead to beauty and a freedom you always needed, but never knew could exist. Chloé Zhao loves painting portraits of little-known corners of the world in her films, and I hope she never stops, because that’s where the most enduring and moving of life lessons come from.

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