Based on the book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” the film stars McDormand as Fern, whose livelihood dries up in her small Nevada town, prompting her to pack her belongings into a rundown van and hit the road.
Along the way, she encounters a number of other modern-day nomads — many played by people actually living that life — forging passing bonds, engaging in philosophical discussion and sharing tips about surviving this hard-bitten path.
There’s a Zen-like quality to the collected wisdom that Fern receives, and the colorful, eccentric personalities that she meets, each of whom has a story to tell.
The van, meanwhile, basically becomes another character, to the extent that it’s a not-terribly-reliable companion on this journey of personal discovery, which doubles as a tour of America’s great open spaces. After a year in which many have found themselves cooped up indoors, there’s unexpected pleasure in that aspect alone.
Still, Zhao’s movie is really defined by its texture and tone, and there’s not a whole lot of meat or momentum to the story. Ultimately, it’s a window into a way of life that will seem foreign to most in the modern age, approaching its practitioners in academic fashion — offering a chance, without judgment, to walk (or drive) a few miles in their shoes.
“Nomadland” is a meticulously crafted little movie, anchored by a star at the top of her game. Yet it’s possible to enjoy the film on that level and still come away feeling if the film makes much noise in the awards hunt, it’s a sign that this was a relatively weak year.
“Nomadland” premieres Feb. 19 in select theaters and on Hulu. It’s rated R.