Nomadland from director Chloé Zhao fits neatly with her previous work. She finds a story to tell and uses real people and their real lives to tell it. You can watch this one streaming on Hulu.
Zhao has received so much recognition for Nomadland and her other work that she’s now in charge of a Marvel blockbuster. That’s wonderful. Congratulations to her, but I hope she keeps making these small films with real people playing themselves. They are touching and lovely. They paint a portrait of America that no blockbuster will ever match.
Frances McDormand plays Fern. She’s a grieving widow in a dying town. She decides to move her home into her van and join the multitudes of Americans who live like nomads in their vans, campers, and trailers.
On the road, in campgrounds, at giant meetups, Fern begins to meet others like herself. These are real nomads, not actors. People tell their own stories, explain their own lives. Mostly Fern listens, sympathizes, helps out when she can. She works when she can find a few months or weeks of employment.
The only other name actor is David Strathairn as Dave. Dave and Fern become friends, see each other again and again on the road. He goes to visit his son for the birth of a grandchild. Fern joins them at Thanksgiving. They have the big meal, the companionship of family. Dave asks Fern to stay, tells her he likes her and likes being around her.
Later Fern creeps down the stairs to watch Dave and his son play the piano together. Such a small, sweet moment. It undoes Fern. Perhaps it’s grief. She can’t breath. She runs from the house and sleeps in her van. In the morning she leaves before anyone is up.
Obviously, Zhao had a plan in mind for the film. She knew when to be in each place to find nomads congregating there. They drove over 7000 miles getting the story filmed. She had to get permission to film while people talked, sang, sat around a campfire, and shared tips for life on the road. But I don’t think she tried to tell anyone (except the professional actors) what to say and do. She simply prepared and focused intimately on real faces as stories came out.
The result is a warm and open-hearted look at people who live with very little and are happy doing it. It’s a life and a world that most people don’t know much about. It’s like seeing America the Beautiful unfold before you.
Here’s a peek at what you’ll see.
Nomadland is playing in theaters right now, in addition to being on Hulu. It would be especially beautiful to see on a big screen. In either case, I urge you to watch it. A visit to the @Nomadland Twitter account is fun, too.