[Screen It]


(2020) (Frances McDormand, David Strathairn) (R)

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Drama: Following the death of her husband and the abandonment of their one-company town, a woman decides to become a nomad and travels around part of the country in her old van.

It's 2011 and the gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada has closed, resulting in the small one-company town being abandoned. With her husband having previously died, Fern (FRANCES McDORMAND), now lives out of her van and works seasonal and odd jobs to earn enough money to pay for gas and food.

She ends up learning how to be a nomad from Bob Wells (BOB WELLS) and fellow nomads such as her new friends Linda May (LINDA MAY) and Swankie (SWANKIE). She also meets Dave (DAVID STRATHAIRN), another nomad who takes a liking to her, although her feelings for him don't extend beyond occasionally bumping into him in various locales. As Fern continues her journeys, she must come to grips with her past and her future.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10

When it comes to familiar creature comforts and any level of wanderlust, humans are split into two camps. Some like routine and the notion of safety and thus prefer to stay right where they are, while others like adventure, novel things, and are those who spend significant parts of their lives traveling.

Of course, age (and one's health) plays a contributing factor in the above, and thus the desire to see one's country or the entire world is likewise split into two groups. There are the youngsters, fresh out of high school or college who want to experience that before settling down into the usual lifestyle of job, marriage, family, and eventual retirement. Then there are those who've earned enough money to live off for the rest of their lives who realize life is short and thus want to experience everything while they can.

A growing subset, however, is comprised of figurative and literal nomads. With the Internet providing some with the "work from anywhere" lifestyle option, an increasing number of people aren't staying put in one location and travel around while still holding down a full-time job. But there are also older people who aren't rich or fully employed -- and thus still must earn enough money to get by -- and decide to lead a nomadic lifestyle.

Author Jessica Bruder first detailed some of that in her Harper's Magazine article, "The End of Retirement," and then expanded that into "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century," an in-depth look at those who've chosen or been forced by circumstance to live that way.

That work has now inspired writer/director Chloé Zhao to helm the titularly truncated "Nomadland." While our protagonist, Fern (a terrific Frances McDormand -- no surprise), is fictitious, her catalyst -- the closing of the gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada in 2011 and the subsequent abandonment of that place that's now officially labeled a ghost town -- is real, as are some of the characters (who portray themselves) she meets on her journeys.

It's an unusual offering in that it's more of a "you are there" experience than a traditional film, especially with nary an antagonist in sight (unless you count bad luck) that also happens to be captivating and mesmerizing in an unhurried and poetically beautiful but also occasionally harsh look at such a lifestyle.

When we first see Fern, her world has already come apart. But being the resilient type, she's figuratively and literally moved on with her life. She has a seasonal job at an Amazon warehouse and lives out of her old but retrofitted van she now calls home. When that temporary job is over, she pulls up stakes and heads for a sort of nomad commune where she meets those real-life travelers -- organizer Bob Wells and fellow nomads Linda May and Swankie -- but like migrating birds, they soon take flight, and thus so does she.

Along the way of her various stops, she keeps running into another such soul, Dave (David Strathairn), who takes a liking to her, although that sort of evolved feeling isn't reciprocal on her part. And that's about it as people and places come and go and Fern simply exists, seemingly resigned to this being her new life.

While that might sound like a major downer -- and at times it borders on that -- the way Zhao presents the people, places, and random events -- is hypnotically engaging in a "gosh, that could happen to me, but it sort of looks cool" fashion. McDormand grounds everything in her usual, far from glamorous but nevertheless stellar performance where you simply can't take your eyes off her.

Which also holds true for the overall film, beautifully shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. It's possible my opinion could change upon a second or third viewing, but after just one, "Nomadland" has inspired some serious wanderlust in yours truly and stands as one of the best films of 2020. It rates an 8 out of 10 score.

Reviewed January 30, 2021 / Posted February 19, 2021

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