Just as Fern (McDormand) cuts herself off from the norms of regular society, “Nomadland” is not tied to traditional storytelling structures. Its unhurried 107-minute running time is leisurely, not plot driven but utterly compelling. Director Chloé Zhao follows the widowed Fern as she leaves Empire, Nevada, a small company town now bleeding residents after the closure of the U.S. Gypsum Corporation factory. So many people have fled to greener pastures that the post office discontinued the local zip code.
Leaving all that she has known behind, Fern loads up her beat-up old van and hits the road, crisscrossing America looking for seasonal work at every stop. She’s not homeless, just unencumbered, solo but not solitary. “I’m not homeless,” she says. I’m just houseless.”
Along the way she discovers a community of fellow nomads, people who teach her the ropes of life on the road. Here’s what I learned: If you have bad knees you need a taller bathroom bucket for your van.
Fern does what it takes to get by, working at an Amazon fulfillment center or taking on caretaker gigs at rec parks, but her iterant lifestyle isn’t about disconnection or colored by loneliness. Her journey is one of self-discovery, of survival, of serenity. She is gritty, but open and friendly, independent and generous. She’s not an exile from “The Grapes of Wrath,” she’s simply living life on her own terms without a drop of self-pity and McDormand never overplays her. There is an authenticity to the performance, aided by Zhao’s casting of real-life nomads like “van-dwelling evangelist” Bob Wells, and travelers Linda May and Charlene Swankie, that never feels less than real, sometimes almost uncomfortably so.
At times “Nomadland” feels like a documentary. Zhao and McDormand have created a beautiful character study about the flipside of the American Dream. As Fern makes her way from gig to gig Zhao decorates the screen with eye-popping visuals courtesy of Joshua James Richards’s cinematography of the landscapes that form the backdrop to Fern’s journey. The story is poetic but never cloying and always reaching for the horizon.