Rated R, 108 minutes
The compelling, unpretentious drama "Nomadland" from Chloe Zhao ("The Rider") is a relevant portrait of a forgotten community of mostly older, displaced people in the U.S. known as nomads searching for work. Engaging, low-key and not entirely optimistic, it focuses on a sixty-something woman traveling the U.S. after losing all she has.
Fern (Oscar-winner Frances McDormand of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri") is a woman in her sixties who, after losing everything in the Great Recession around 2011, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
"Nomadland," based on the 2017 best-selling non-fiction book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century" by Jessica Bruder, is a fascinating dissection of what these older nomads do to survive after displacement. Written and directed by Zhao, its loose, meandering narrative is filled with some powerful moments, anchored by a reserved yet strong performance from McDormand as the slightly eccentric, newbie nomad forced to find a second life on the road.
McDormand is a perfect fit for the part as Fern, a part markedly different from her most recent Oscar-winning turn as Mildred in "Three Billboard"; Fern is as unassuming as Mildred was outspoken, and if you put these two in the same room they wouldn't get along. It's a tribute to McDormand's skill that she shades this character as perfectly as Mildred; with a simple look, facial expression or word or phrase gain insight into Fern's bittersweet journey beset by grief and loss.
Quietly filmed and scored, and writer/director Zhao, like McDormand, is perfectly suited to the material; her strong direction and script is lovingly executed, with a loose, episodic feel following Fern in her travels. She meets some colorful characters along the way, including the kind Dave (Oscar-nominee David Strathairn), as well as real-life nomads playing themselves: the helpful Bob Wells, and memorably, scene-stealers Linda May and Charlene Swankie, who provide some much-needed humor and wisdom for Fern.
Though its tone is pensive and it has a slower pace than other films, "Nomadland" is still a relevant, moving addition to our current landscape, and in a year, much like Fern's, beset by grief and loss, it's one of the best films of the year and will stay with you long after you leave the theater. Add it to your list of must-see films this new year.