I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but I’d say a majority of the people who will watch the slow-burn drama of “Nomadland” have never thought of what it takes to be a person with no home.
Writer-director Chloé Zhao and star Frances McDormand seem to realize this, which is why they approach this adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s book with such care and empathy, making for a beautiful look at life and community.
Taking place in 2011 after the recession, “Nomadland” follows Fern (McDormand), a worker at drywall and flooring plant whose life is uprooted when the business and her hometown of Empire, Nevada, abruptly cease to exist. Along with her husband’s recent death, Fern decides to get rid of most of her possessions, take on seasonal jobs and live on the open road.
Traveling to different nomadic communities, she meets people willing to guide her journey, like the motherly Swankie (played by a nomadic person of the same name) and the tender David (“The Bourne Ultimatum’s” David Strathairn), a man who desperately wants to see her thrive again.
With homelessness being such a stigmatized issue in America, Zhao brings personal care to the subject. The people who live in nomad camps know what it means to struggle and be left behind, and when they see a new person in their area they help them survive.
Zhao doesn’t tell the audience all of this, she lets the movie speak for itself in scenes like a downtrodden Fern slowly trekking across a camp she’s recently discovered. She gets scattered greetings, as the audience takes a peek at these communities getting ready for the day around bonfires or in their Econoline vans and tents. There’s not much dialogue because the cinematography, shot by Joshua James Richards, speaks for itself.
“Nomadland” understands that Fern is the product of a failed system that wipes out industries, livelihoods and communities. On the same token, she’s also seen as wildly stubborn, refusing help from relatives while she deals with her trauma and tries to navigate a new way of life on her own.
Zhao does an excellent job balancing the uncertainty of living on the road with bursts of joy, like David and her visiting a zoo or galavanting in the desert. Two scenes where a nomad faces down with cancer and the end of their life are the most touching scenes I’ve experienced in some time while watching movies.
It almost goes without saying that McDormand is excellent, to an almost unfair degree to the other performances she’ll face in awards season. Her ability to conjure up dread and sadness without saying a word has never fit a role better than it has for Fern.
Like Fern, “Nomadland” moves slow and methodically, trying to figure out where it will go next. To some, that may be too glacial of a pace, with the stakes so low that it could be seen as pointless. For me, it was an experience and lesson in understanding and identity for a community I’ve never been a part of and I won’t look at the same.
“Nomadland” will be playing at the Fox Theater in Atchison, Kansas, and the Screenland Armour in Kansas City, Missouri, starting on Feb. 19. It also will be available to stream on Hulu.