Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a nomad living out of her van after the death of her husband, and the town of Empire, Nev., due to the Great Recession a few years before.
Constructed as a documentary—with McDormand actually living in a van and traveling among real-life nomads—the film is a straightforward look at someone who (partially) chooses a life with little connection to standard society. Fern has plenty of opportunities to leave the RV-park life and her temporary jobs at Amazon and a beet farm, but she resists. She has her reasons.
McDormand is joined by one other Hollywood star in David Strathairn, who plays David, a sort-of love interest who might be nearing the end of his nomad days. Both McDormand and Strathairn inhabit their roles convincingly, although their existence sometimes butts up against the very real situations around them.
McDormand went full “method” for much of the shoot, living out of her van (until she couldn’t take it anymore), traveling all over the West and working odd jobs. Some folks in the U.S. probably got Amazon shipments packed by the actress, as she is seen scanning inventory and boxing it up. A visit to real-life Empire near film’s end is especially poignant.
The year 2020 was a weird one for film, of course, but this stands out as one of the year’s best—and it would stand out in any year.
Nomadland is streaming on Hulu. It is now playing at the Mary Pickford Drive-In Experience (68651 Grove St., Cathedral City).