‘Nomadland’ – a ‘houseless’ Frances McDormand stars in ‘excellent’ nomads movie
By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Fern (Frances McDormand), the widowed protagonist of the excellent new film, “Nomadland” is new to the nomad life. When we first meet her, she’s just lost her husband, her job, even her zip code (the year is 2011 and her hometown has literally been erased by the Great Recession). So, she buys a van and hits the road. She’s houseless, she explains, but not homeless.
Neither are the dozens of people she meets as she meanders the New West, taking jobs at a beet factory, an Amazon warehouse, even managing a trailer park that caters to others in the houseless population.
Fern’s new life is learn-as-you-go, everything from a dollop of astronomy to how to plug a tire. Her new “neighbors” – many of the people in the film are actual nomads – are marginalized, but they’re not hopeless. Most of them are on the road by choice. Too young for retirement, too old for new careers, they’ve opted for the relative freedom of rootlessness.
Fern has a sister (Melissa Smith) who’d gladly take her in and a would-be suitor (David Strathairn) who’s also rejected the security of family in favor of always moving on. Yet she’s found a kind of family in the transients she comes across in her travels. “Nomadland” examines a different mind-set, one dictated, yes, by harsh realities like economy and aging, but also defined by a wanderlust as old as America itself.
Based on a book by Jessica Bruder, the movie offers a collision between documentary and fiction that sometimes works better than others. There’s the poetry of a starry night, the domestic humor of swap meets where your one-too-many potholder is the perfect trade for someone else’s one-too-many cutting board. But mostly director Chloe Zhao (“The Rider”) and her star (who also produced) are intrigued by the multiple implications of the outlier life. What’s lost, what’s found.
You do wonder about the dangers faced by a woman on her own (versus a male) and some simple matters of hygiene (male and female). But mostly “Nomadland” works on its own uniquely seductive level, which is closely tied to McDormand’s extremely seductive performance.
Unlike the often-indulgent showboating of her Oscar-winning portrayal in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” the star’s work here has a hardscrabble authenticity. Fern’s journey is less one of self-discovery than self-acceptance. You sense that, somehow, she’s always been an outlier.
That, somehow, some of us always will be.
“Nomadland,” which won best movie and best director at the Golden Globe Awards Feb. 28, is now being screened in movie theaters. It also is available to be viewed online through Hulu.