Roger Ebert once said that great films change with you, revealing new things each time you watch them. Chloé Zhao's wonderful Nomadland is one of those films. The first time I watched it, the film seemed only about economic struggle and human connection. The second time, the film seemed to be more about grief and how it can affect all parts of someone's existence. Home isn't a physical place but something within its main character Fern.
Fern is played by Frances McDormand, an actor who brings so much with her to every role. She is particularly stunning here, giving both a grand and nuanced performance. Fern, a recent widow, leaves her home in rural Nevada. The town shut down when the plant that Fern and her husband worked at closed. She lives now as a nomad, living in a van and traveling around America to find seasonal work. Early on, Fran corrects an acquaintance that she is not homeless, just house-less. One of the strengths of the film is that Fern is not a tragic character. She doesn't seem unhappy drifting along the American West. She has moments of worry and stress but in equal measure, moments of bliss.
The film is based on a nonfiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder. Zhao does something tricky but authentic by casting many non-actors who often seem to tell their real-life stories. The film is dreamlike, mostly shot during magic hour, but also rooted in the reality of this kind of American life. David Strathairn is one of the few other actors in the film. He is great as a kind loner who falls for Fern.
Zhao has created an artful portrait of people who are forgotten or ignored by most Americans. Fern goes from job to job but the real strength of the film is the moments between these temporary work situations. There is immense freedom to the way Fern lives. On my first viewing, Fern seems hesitant to give up this freedom. On my second viewing, I realized it may not be the freedom she is scared of giving up but the lonely grief that she carries with her. This is all beautifully actualized by Frances McDormand's performance, truly one of the best of the year. Nomadland is a film that lingers with you long after seeing it. It invaded my soul in a way, making me look at the world differently. Films that inspire empathy are something to be treasured and Nomadland is just that, a treasure.