Review: ‘Nomadland,’ A Distant Dream Comes Into Focus

Frances McDormand stars in Chloe Zhao’s captivating, rugged re-consideration of the American Dream. 

I was born in California and raised with the dream that when I was 65, I would be able to retire and enjoy my golden years in a modest house with my modest wife on a modest income. 

That was the dream of many people in the past, a fantasy that has grown more distant over the years. Nowadays, I know I will not be in an economic position to retire, that I will need to somehow earn money through the end of my days in this world, just to be able to put food on the table and keep a roof over my head. 

What, though, if I could break free from traditional expectations and aim to live, not in a home or apartment in a fixed location, but instead survive by my hard work and wits on the road, savoring life on the road? That appears to be the course that Fern (Frances McDormand) is following. 

She has lost her husband, her livelihood, and her home after the closure of a mine in her former home territory, so she has packed up her van and hit the road. She begins to meet and mingle with other so-called “nomads,” who each have their own motivations to leave behind a traditional lifestyle. Some are more experienced, and are willing to share  hard-earned tips they have picked up along the way; some are younger and some are older, but Fern is happy to listen and befriend like-minded people, no matter their origin or destination. 

Fern picks up jobs, both seasonal and temporary to cover her expenses as she roams across the country. She has become rootless, not homeless; her home is wherever she happens to be. She has no destination in mind, nor does she have a particular future in mind. 

What will she do if she experiences a disabling physical affliction or suffers an accident? She prefers to push those possibilities aside, preferring to soak in the endless variety of landscapes that she sees in a different light, now that she is a resident of the endless road. 

Director Chloe Zhao (The Rider) allows Fern and her growing assemblage of friends and acquaintances to take center stage, revolving around Frances McDorman’s marvelously modest performance. She knows that her subtle reactions to the scenery and the people that surround her communicate volumes. The film does not follow narrative conventions, yet always moves forward, examining Fern and how she adjusts to her changed circumstances. 

Fern does not talk much about her future, but her mild and optimistic nature is contagious. We’re left with the idea that she will survive in her new world for as long as she can,solo and alone but never solitary. Then she will figure out what to do after that. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, February 19, via Searchlight Pictures. It will also be available to watch beginning the same day on the Hulu streaming service. For more information about the film, visit the official site