“Nomadland,” Chloe Zhao’s tale of a 61-year-old woman who leaves her home to live in a van, is a quiet masterpiece, carried by one of the best-ever performances by one of the best-ever actresses, Frances McDormand.
Writer/director Zhao adapted the film from the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder. The character of Fern was created for McDormand.
Then, as she did with her previous films — “Songs My Brother Taught Me” and “The Rider” — Zhao combines McDormand, David Strathairn and other professionals with nonactors, who become some of the real “nomads” from the book.
That technique and the guerrilla-style shooting of the nomads on locations from South Dakota and Nebraska to California and Nevada gives the film authenticity.
And, within the first 15 minutes, it illuminates McDormand’s quietly stunning performance as she becomes one of the nomads, indistinguishable in many ways from those who live in their vans.
“Nomadland,” however, isn’t contemporary. It’s set in 2011, when the widowed Fern leaves the rapidly disappearing town of Empire, Nevada, where the gypsum mine has gone under, puts her belongings in storage and heads out in the van she's altered to live in.
Landing a job taping boxes shut in an Amazon warehouse, Fern meets Linda May, a veteran of the road, who tells her of an Arizona rendezvous where nomads gather each year.
Initially turning down the invitation, Fern drives to the desert gathering, where she hears from organizer and nomad philosopher Bob, played by Bob Wells. And she meets and dances with retiree Dave (Strathairn).
A flat tire leads to Fern striking up a friendship with another nomad who teaches her something of both practical life in the van and of appreciating her life. Then, Fern takes a job at the national grasslands in South Dakota, where she again encounters Dave.
When that gig ends, they go to work in the kitchen at Wall Drug, beginning a not-quite romantic relationship that provides “Nomadland” with something of a plot line.
But the film is, by the nature of Fern’s story and the nomadic life, episodic, with interspersed encounters, difficulties and moments of grace as she travels from place to place.
And those landscapes are seen with the same grounded, but dramatic look that cinematographer Joshua James Richards brought to his views of the Pine Ridge Reservation in “The Rider.”
That includes highly contrasted views of a sugar beet plant near Scottsbluff, where Fern goes to work shoveling beets. That and Fern’s encounter with a mechanic when her van breaks down are scenes Zhao and company shot in Nebraska in 2018.
And, it has been widely reported that McDormand — who like Zhao and the 25-member crew, lived in vans during the filming — knew her impersonation of a nomad was working when she was offered a job when she was in a Target store in Nebraska (I’d guess again in Scottsbluff). The Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron also receives a “thanks to” in the credits.
“Nomadland” is without question a character study of Fern, who, depending on the circumstances can be lonely, happy, social, isolated, determined or discouraged and, in the hands of McDormand, never less than real.
But the picture is also an examination of the nomadic lifestyle that is being followed by primarily older white folks who are leaving behind middle-class existence for life in the van. And Zhao treats each of the real nomads with empathy and respect that gives the film great warmth and heart.
“Nomadland,” which had a short qualifying run last year before opening in theaters such as the Ross Media Arts Center on Friday, is surrounded by Oscar buzz, especially for McDormand, who should win her third best actress award after “Fargo” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Zhao could be just the second woman to win the best director award.
The movie, which feels very timely even though it’s set a decade ago, is one of the best picture favorites as well, for good reason. It would get my vote. It is indeed a heartfelt masterpiece of a little-seen part of America.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @KentWolgamott