Plot: A woman in her sixties embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a modern-day nomad in a van that carries all her possessions and, more importantly, memories of a life once lived.
Chloé Zhao’s NOMADLAND is, simply put, a miracle of a film. A rare film about real people who we may have come across but simply chose to ignore, this humane, multi-layered story is raw, honest, beautiful and immensely rewarding to watch.
Fern (a sublime Frances McDormand in one of the best performance of her career) is a modern-day nomad. A widow in her sixties, she loses her primary source of income and is left with a van and a bunch of part-time jobs that she accepts just to get by. Along the way, she meets people from all walks of life and gradually opens up about her own past and where she might be heading in the future.
In multiple ways, Fern’s van stands for much more than it seems. A symbol of a tormented human soul looking for closure, peace and a destination, a place where one’s heart lies, a vehicle that serves as an escape much more than a simple means for transportation, a home that’s carried within with all one’s memories wrapped into every corner of an already limited space, an expression of an identity and an independent lifestyle, a token of transition or, perhaps more applicably, limbo that we all go through as we find ourselves stranded in grief and in constant search for what’s next when it’s incredibly hard to imagine what the future might hold.
In choosing to be houseless yet not homeless, Fern’s world is confined to this small yet meaningful structure of a moving vehicle. A choice, not made willingly but due to tough economic times, her nomad life seemingly nurtures her independence but, as the film goes by, is revealed as confining as much as it is freeing, especially when it becomes clearer what the significance of such a lifestyle is for Fern- as though she’s mentally, emotionally and physiologically at the very same place that witnessed her past life with her husband. In a way, she left and yet never left – or as Zhao beautifully puts it in her magnificent screenplay, she spends her time remembering more than moving forward.
The brilliance of NOMADLAND is that much of it can be interpreted in more than one way. As Zhao highlights actual modern-day nomads, played by non-actors, we get to examine the transition from the circumstantial to the autonomous – what starts as a forced lifestyle due to lack of means quickly evolves into an autarchic, liberating mode of life. The film never falls into the trap of miserablism, as Zhao gracefully represents each of her nomads with dignity and humanity and celebrates the incredible support system they’ve built for each other and passers by.
But while that’s true for most of the film’s real-life nomads, Fern’s story is examined more closely as we get to experience her one-year journey of healing and introspection – and as the film goes by, it is evident that what seemed as a choice for independence could mean exactly the opposite for Fern: an inability to truly move on, a binding attachment to the past, an unwillingness, or perhaps fear, from finding closure.
NOMADLAND paints a picture of humanity like we’ve rarely seen it on screen. We’re all nomads in some way even if we never hit the road. We move from job to job, house to house, from one relationship to the next, trying to find solace, love, happiness and a sense of identity. And because our time on earth is limited and finite, we spend most of it in search for belonging. And what we end up with are the memories of the moments once lived.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release Nomadland in theaters on December 4, 2020.