Writer/director Chloe Zhao's Nomadland is getting a lot of Oscar buzz. It may not be my pick for the best of 2020, but it is a strong effort that's worth a look from moviegoers.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who lost everything during the Great Recession. She starts living out of her van and traveling from odd job to odd job across the country. Along the way, she meets and befriends other people living like nomads.
There's not much plot in Nomadland, but that's fine. In the early stages, the movie briefly seems like it might become a fantasy vision of living on the road in a van, a romanticized look at that life that could only come from people who have no intention of ever living it. But thankfully, the movie sidesteps such simplified thinking. The audience sees why the life appeals to Fern (the freedom, the beauty, and the serenity of nature). But we also get to see how hard it is (potentially lethal weather, the cramped sleeping conditions, makeshift "toilets"). And while most of the people Fern meets along the way are generally kind-hearted, they are all carrying a burden of grief, loss, or disappointment on their shoulders. The movie is infused with a low-key sadness, but it never feels depressing.
McDormand's already won two Oscars, and her performance here could earn her a third. Fern always feels fully human. She's not an easily classifiable "type." McDormand is aided by David Strathairn (always a welcome presence) as a fellow traveler with a crush on her.
Travel nerds will also enjoy cinematographer Joshua James Richards' beautiful photography of places like Badlands National Park (America's most underrated national park in this writer's humble opinion).
Nomadland is currently in theaters and streaming on Hulu.
*** stars (out of four)