By Lynn Venhaus
A film of remarkable grace and wonder, “Nomadland” demonstrates power in stillness as a fiercely independent woman makes her way along the ribbon of highways through Arizona, the Dakotas, California and other places.
Fern (Frances McDormand) packs up her van and sets off on the road, finding work along the way, as she joins other modern-day nomads off-the-grid in the American West. It’s a transient life outside of conventional society, with freedom a trade-off. A widow, she lived in Empire, Nevada, but the company town collapsed when the sheet-rock facility closed in 2011, an economic victim in the Great Recession. This is Fern’s hard-fought middle-age journey.
In writer-director Chloe Zhao’s third film, she charts a third-act journey that is authentic in every possible way, making the impact even greater by using real-life people as Fern’s friends and mentors.
Linda May, Bob Wells and Charlene Swankie are memorable characters in this subculture. The only actor besides Frances McDormand is the superb character actor David Strathairn, who plays Dave, a park ranger she runs into on several occasions and develops a friendship with, and they later work together.
Based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century,” Zhao draws on that experience, where Bruder documented itinerant Americans while living in a camper van for three years and traveling 15,000 miles.
As blue-collar Fern, McDormand delivers another lived-in performance that doesn’t have a false move. She fits in the landscape in a thoroughly believable way, her face a roadmap of a life lived on her terms.
Still grieving her husband, who died of cancer, and reducing her memories to a few boxes in the van she lives in, Fern shows strength in the roads not taken. She’s resourceful and resilient, not able to retire in a society that has marginalized her.
She depicts the dignity of hard work, whether it’s boxing up orders at an Amazon warehouse or working as a seasonal fry cook. She captures the essence of Fern, a restless soul who can no longer settle down. As opportunities for work and better conditions come along, we see her embrace the alone time.
When some former neighbors run into her, she refuses to be pitied. “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless.” There is a difference, she emphasizes.
With the stunning backdrop of the West’s natural beauty, we feel her loneliness but also the sense of community shared by other self-sufficient RV-living travelers. They learn from each other, show compassion in their humanity and maintain that connection: “See you down the road.”
Zhao also edited the film, and the way she frames shots is a beautiful thing. So is the camera work by cinematographer Joshua James Richards.
Composer Ludovico Einaudi has created a haunting piano score that beautifully captures the moods depicted.
“Nomadland” is one of the best films of the year and shows why McDormand is an uncommon talent full of enormous depth and sincerity. Every move she makes is reality-based, and we are the richer for her portrait, as we all try to understand the human condition ourselves.
“Nomadland” is a drama written and directed by Chloe Zhao, starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn. Rated R for some full nudity, it is 1 hr. 48 min. long. Lynn’s Grade: A+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.