Film review: Nomadland

“I am house-less, not home-less,” says the main character near the beginning of the film, in response to a well-meaning probe. The notion that one’s home is something you carry with you — and in this case, metaphysically and literally — shapes the transcendental heart of Nomadland, a serenely visceral work based on a novel by Jessica Bruder.

Set in post-Global-Financial-Crisis America, this third feature by Chloe Zhao records Fern’s (Frances McDormand) induction into and experience of an itinerant life. With the demise of her husband, and the town in which they lived, the stoical, middle-aged former teacher decides to be a van-dwelling working nomad, as she sets off criss-crossing the harsh, arid landscape of the United States. It is a choice that invests its tenability not only on one’s health but that of the vehicle.

While sustaining this lifestyle through odd jobs, Fern finds friendships that lead her to a community of simpatico people at an annual gathering organised by Bob Wells, the famous wayfarer whose writings and Youtube channel have inspired thousands. Amongst the cast of non-professional performers who are genuine nomads (the magnificent Linda May and Swankie, and the charismatic Wells) is the other fictional role, Dave (David Strathairn), with whom Fern contemplates a deeper connection, in a gentle scenario that acutely depicts the conflict between complex bonds we forge with others and with ourselves.

Beautifully photographed by Joshua James Richards, Nomadland is a movie that discovers enormous humanity in bleak, washed-out colours and inhospitable contours — a tender, unflinching inquiry into the real world by a formidably talented actor.