Watching Frances McDormand in a movie is like watching someone you know; an old friend, maybe someone who knew you when you were a kid, someone with whom you can feel completely at ease. She’s the kind of actor who seems to bring home with her, and therefore she’s perfect as Fern in Chloé Zhao’s wondrous “Nomadland”: This is a character for whom home isn’t a place, but something you carry.
Like Zhao’s previous film “The Rider,” “Nomadland” has a haunting, dreamlike quality; also like “The Rider,” its drama takes place in the face and voice of its main character, who’s figuring out a new kind of life. Fern, a recent widow, leaves her longtime home in rural Nevada, in a former company town that’s now an empty shell after the plant that employed Fern and her husband closed years ago. She becomes a nomad, living in her van and finding seasonal work when and where she can, discovering the American West along the way. She’s not homeless, Fern corrects an acquaintance — she’s house-less. And she’s not particularly unhappy; drifting, like in the lake where we see her briefly floating blissfully, seems to suit her.
“Nomadland,” based on a nonfiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder, is primarily about Fern’s journey, but we also meet a host of other people in similar straits, many of whom are played by nonactors who are themselves nomads. (Watch, though, for the great David Strathairn as a gentle loner who’s drawn to Fern.) It’s a movie about people who are often invisible; older people, without much money, who’ve chosen — or had chosen for them, when the social safety net fails — an alternative way of life. We watch Fern in her various jobs, in Amazon warehouses and tired restaurant kitchens and rest-stop bathrooms; she’s focused, hardworking, content. (“I like work,” she matter-of-factly tells a caseworker.) This is a woman of remarkable strength, making a new plan on the fly after her old life floated away.
Zhao shows us the difficulty of this life — the endless laundromats, the cramped bed in the van, the cold, the possessions left behind — but also its beauty and freedom. I wished I could have seen “Nomadland” on a theater screen, to see the horizons and pale-peach sunrises stretching endlessly in Joshua James Richards’ beautiful cinematography. And I wished I could have seen McDormand’s face as big as a house, looking wonderingly outward, finding possibility.