Chloe Zhao's 'Nomadland' takes audiences on raw, real, wondrous journey

  • An unemployed widow (Frances McDormand) explores the American West in "Nomadland."

    An unemployed widow (Frances McDormand) explores the American West in "Nomadland." Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

  • An unemployed widow (Frances McDormand) explores the American West in "Nomadland."

    An unemployed widow (Frances McDormand) explores the American West in "Nomadland." Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Posted2/11/2021 6:00 AM

"Nomadland" -- ★ ★ ★ ★

Few films possess the power to alter our world views, to rewire how we think and prioritize, and to increase our awareness of the tiny, miraculous, never-before-noticed details that surround us on the planet.


Chloe Zhao's real and raw road movie "Nomadland" packs this potential, especially for more adventuresome audiences willing to watch a revelatory cinematic experience that's as far away from a Michael Bay "Transformers" tale as you can get.

"I'm not homeless, I'm houseless," says Fern, a 60-something unemployed widow played by Frances McDormand. "Not the same thing, is it?"

Fern lost her Nevada home when the local gypsum mine closed down, virtually wiping her town off the map and scattering its residents.

Now, the itinerant Fern drives across the country in her cramped camper van, picking up seasonal and hourly jobs to support her nomadic lifestyle.

She, like untold numbers of wanderers, has more than adapted to a downward financial situation. She has rejected the traditional American dream of owning a house, having a family and accruing corporate benefits and a 401-k plan.

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As Fern travels around America, taking jobs at Amazon, fast-food diners, roadside rest stops and potato farms, she frequently connects with a large family of fellow mavericks, kindred rebel spirits, united under the caring leadership of a saintly bearded man (Bob Wells, playing himself).

As they speak with Fern, these outsiders reveal their wounded souls, personal joys and broken dreams. One, a veteran nomad named Linda May, confesses to plotting suicide by a gas explosion, only to call it off when she sees her two precious dogs next to her.

Zhao directs "Nomadland" -- based on the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder -- without judgment or prejudice, tapping many of the real subjects from Bruder's book to play themselves.

David Strathairn plays Dave, a gentle, gray-bearded houseless man who takes a fancy to Fern. (Because Strathairn is the only other known actor in the movie, it telegraphs we will be seeing more of him, albeit in a relationship that defies the standard Hollywood romantic subplot.)


As Fern travels the American countryside, she -- and we along with her -- discover the simplicity, beauty and grace of the places she visits, with Joshua James Richards' immersive, widescreen camera lens capturing the imposing majesty of the Redwood forest, the celestial calm of bathing in a river, the surrealistic rock formations of the desert.

If "Nomadland" falls back on the reliable cliches of balloons, fireworks and the uniting group singalong (here, "On the Road Again"), that's OK. Zhao's meticulously paced story crackles with the spontaneity and rawness of real life.

McDormand's egoless, humanized, world-weathered performance magically merges character with performer, producing a feisty, exhausted, hopeful, resolved, triumphant and cowed outsider rendered with such purity and transparency, it gives the setting sun -- frequently glimpsed in widescreen splendor -- a run for its shine.

• • •

Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Melissa Smith

Directed by: Chlo Zhao

Other: A Searchlight Pictures release. In theaters; on demand Feb. 26. Rated R for nudity. 108 minutes

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