By Paul Hall
Where are we going? Where have we been? What is the right way to get there? These are questions that virtually every individual has contemplated at one time or another. In the new film Nomadland, from director Chloé Zhao, we see a journey of just one individual as she discovers life and the beauty that surrounds us all.
Fern (Frances McDormand) has lived and worked in Empire, Nevada, for many years. Empire was home to a gypsum plant that employed both her and her husband for years. After her husband passed, Fern worked at the plant until it closed in 2011 and the city itself folded as a result of the closing. Having recently lost her husband, Fern places many of her belongings in storage while working a seasonal job. But when that job comes to an end, she takes the advice of her friend Linda (Linda May) and travels to a nomad community in Arizona.
It is in this community that Fern begins some true soul-searching. She lives in her van, which is not uncommon for the community residents. Although some would view the vehicle as a beat-up excuse for housing, it was created to be practical and utilize every piece of space that exists. In Arizona, Fern learns the lost art of survival from those in the nomad lifestyle.
Eventually the road calls. Fern heads out to the next job, the next locale, the next stop on the journey of life and to her own self-discovery. Along the way, she sees much of the amazing land that she calls home. Everyone around Fern worries for her — that is, those who don’t also travel with nomads. Fern believes she is OK, and is continually growing and developing while creating her new happiness. We want her to succeed, wherever the road takes her.
We live in such an amazing, beautiful world, and Zhao captures the beauty that lives among us. Not just the physical beauty of land masses and sunsets, but the stunning nature of people. It’s amazing how a camera can be used to illustrate in amazing detail every nook and cranny of the world.
McDormand shines alongside a cast in large part filled with actual members of the nomad community. Many of these characters are real and it shows, but the key is that every piece of McDormand’s performance also feels real. Her embrace of the road, her environment and those who she works alongside allow Zhao some amazing flexibility in creating this magical piece.
Locations along the way played their own roles. From Wall Drug in South Dakota to the desert southwest, and from the inside of an Amazon fulfillment center to a roadside stand selling rocks and wares, the variety of locations enhance a journey that is about more than just the road being traveled.
There is no right way to do anything. Sure, there are rules — I mean, I have a deadline for writing this review — but how we use our talents, and who we hold valuable is up to us. We have the ability to choose so much more than we think we can. We need to remember that beauty is everywhere around us. Nomadland has reaffirmed my love for the movies, reaffirmed my love for life and recommitted my efforts to live life to the fullest. Life’s journey is a winding road and we can’t be afraid of the path.
Paul’s Grade: A-
Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
Director: Chloé Zhao