Sometimes movies sneak up on us. They reach their emotional climaxes, and we are left wiping away tears. “Nomadland” is a perfect example of this. I was engaged by the plot all along, but I didn’t realize how emotionally invested I was until a scene between two people talking about grief.
In this conversation, Bob Wells, a guide for nomads or vandwellers, shares that his son died by suicide, which touches the main character, Fern, because she began vandwelling after her husband died. This conversation reminded me of the loved ones I’ve lost and my desire to see them again. It was a heartbreaking moment, but it also made me recognize how much I loved them and the people still around me.
This exploration of self was unexpected because “Nomadland” appears to be a film about Fern (Frances McDormand) traveling across the country to be closer to the natural world and separate herself from the “tyranny of money,” as Wells describes it. But that’s only part of what “Nomadland” is. Ultimately, Fern’s nomad journey is one of grief.
Before the film begins, Fern has lost her husband and livelihood. She is not only grieving her husband; she is grieving her existence. And now she has a new life as a modern-day nomad. Director Chloé Zhao does a phenomenal job presenting Fern’s new experiences with both an eye for beauty and one for reality.
Zhao captures many locations and celebrates their intricate details. She makes dirt, rocks, and dying vegetation look as breathtaking as a sunset. With “Nomadland,” she seizes the magic of what many call flyover country. In this film, it’s not flyover country. These are areas begging to be seen and appreciated.
While Zhao complements the natural world with her camera, she also makes Fern’s jobs look grimy and mundane. There is no glamor in packing boxes for Amazon, wiping down dirty toilet seats, or scraping a charred grill. With these shots, Zhao shows that Fern has grit and that she’ll do anything to escape from her grief.
Zhao further develops this realism by casting unknown actors in the supporting roles. This choice creates a tone that feels authentic and not hindered by Hollywood glitz and glamour. The three standout non-actors are Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells. Linda May is Fern’s friend and co-worker who encourages Fern to more aggressively pursue nomad life. She is a positive presence in the film, and she’s one of the purest representations of American spirit and kindness.
Swankie is a bit rougher around the edges, but underneath her tough exterior is a person enchanted by the beauty of nature. She is also more accepting of death than Fern, so she imparts her wisdom, hoping that it will bring Fern peace on her journey.
Then there is Bob Wells, who in real life brought together vandwellers. Wells’ performance is likely not much of a “performance” but that makes it that much more powerful. As he speaks about his son who killed himself, Wells breaks into slow quiet tears, and his authenticity here would never be captured quite right by a leading man.
The two most well-known actors are McDormand and David Strathairn. Both of these actors are known for giving excellent performances that allow them to disappear into roles. Strathairn most notably played Edward R. Murrow years ago in “Good Night and Good Luck,” and McDormand has become an unofficial mascot of the forgotten American women. This is clearest in “Fargo” and “Three Billboards of Ebbing, Missouri.” In both films, she plays women who are persistent in their goals, and that same persistence permeates “Nomadland.”
In this new film, Fern is persistent in her desire to travel while fleeing her grief. There was an instance in which I thought Fern was a selfish character because she dismisses the help of others. But I soon realized that she’s not being selfish. She’s simply coping with her grief and doesn’t want to be a burden to others.
Like Fern, “Nomadland” is not a burden. It’s a gift. The filmmaker behind it should be exceptionally proud of how she communicates the stories of people not often heard from. And she should be applauded for bringing attention to the beautiful landscapes of many states including Nebraska.