The people at the center of Nomadland each have their own reasons for living the way they do.
The movie takes place in the aftermath of the Great Recession, as Fern, played by Frances McDormand, leaves her town of Empire, Nevada, which has just ceased to exist due to the withdrawal of the U.S. Gypsum Corporation. Fern sets out on the road, adopting the lifestyle of other American nomads, roving from place to place in their vans or RVs, staying until they’re moved to leave, whether that’s out of necessity or just a feeling. She finds seasonal work—in the winter in an Amazon warehouse, here and there at national parks—and she finds a sort of community among the many other people who also value their solitary lives, running into them down the road in places she didn’t expect, and sometimes not seeing them in places she expected to. Many of them must have been thrust into this by the devastation of the recession, but it must also be true that many of them are there because they want to be. Fern is certainly running from—or chasing—grief, but there’s some indication that if things had fallen just a bit differently, she might have turned to this life even earlier. And she’s not alone.
I suspect the nonfiction book this film is based on tells us a lot more about the social and political context surrounding these nomads, but director Chloé Zhao’s aim is more humanistic and spiritual. This is her third film, her follow-up to The Rider, which was the best movie of 2017, and she’s shown herself to be extraordinarily gifted with non-actors. McDormand and David Strathairn are surrounded here by real people who incorporate their own stories into their characters’ lives, and as astonishingly good as McDormand and Strathairn are, it’s the faces and stories of those non-actors who make Nomadland soar. Even our greatest performers can’t truly show us the soul of people’s real lives, but thankfully, if we ask them, some people are willing to show us themselves.