Life is a Highway – Nomadland

I apologize profusely for the headline reference. Anyway, one of the big contenders this Awards Season is at last available to be seen by the public, after it’s scraped up a bunch of Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, and other nominations. Written, directed, produced, and edited by Chloé Zhao (The Rider), Nomadland has finally been released in theatres and on Hulu, and is thankfully very worthy of the high praise it’s garnered over the last two months. Frances McDormand shines in a spotlight role that will surely earn her a Best Actress Oscar nomination (and perhaps her third win), in a modern western that romanticizes an unsettled lifestyle without fetishizing or mocking it.

Taking place over the span of a little more than a year, McDormand stars as Fern, who used to work for US Gypsum in Empire, Nevada, neither of which now exists in any meaningful way after the mine that formed the basis for the track housing town was shut down in 2011. The widowed Fern spends the next 14 months traveling up and down the American West, taking odd jobs and living out of her van, which she has dubbed “Vanguard.” From seasonal work at an Amazon warehouse (odd that the production licensed Amazon yet didn’t sell them the distribution rights) to picking up trash at Badlands Park, Fern subsists on the minimum, applying most of her wages to vehicle upkeep, and forging relationships with other nomads, learning the ins and outs of the lifestyle.

McDormand’s performance is real, relatable, and honest throughout. She doesn’t say much when she speaks, but there’s intent and sincerity behind every word that does come out. She’s genuinely curious about the people around her. She mourns in silence for her late husband, but won’t make any excuses for her life on the road. She outright refuses to be “diagnosed,” for lack of a better term. She’s not running to or from anything, and she’s not looking for some magical happy ending to everything that’s happened to her. She’s living simply and simply living. She asks only for the barest of necessities, and she will not be pitied. She is kind, friendly, and funny, instantly sociable to anyone and always willing to lend a helping hand. She’s just as comfortable in a corporate environment as she is floating naked in a river or shitting in a bucket (two things I can honestly say I’d never imagined seeing her doing). For the entire length of the film, McDormand is there to show that Fern is a person rather than a character, and she pulls it off with expert skill.

The story, such as it is, is more a series of slice-of-life vignettes than a linear plot. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, each stop on Fern’s tour is a sort of time capsule highlighting the transient lifestyle that many older Americans have taken in the wake of the Great Recession. Zhao even employs well-known real-life nomads (Bob Wells, Linda May, and Swankie) to play fictionalized versions of themselves, interacting with Fern almost as if this were a documentary rather than a fictional film.

If there’s a flaw to be had, it’s in the film’s one attempt at shoehorning in a traditional storytelling element, that of a romantic subplot. At a gathering of nomads in Arizona, Fern meets Dave, played admirably by David Strathairn. From their very first meet-cute exchanging can openers to a Badlands tour to working as line cooks in South Dakota, it’s abundantly clear that Dave is enamored with Fern, and it’s also clear that any attempt at a relationship is doomed. I love both actors immensely, and in a different film I would definitely ship them. But here it feels just a tad out of place, and it’s the one aspect that lacks the wonder of the rest of the movie. It’s by no means offensive, and it doesn’t exactly take me out of the moment, but it is the most conspicuous part of this otherwise wonderful movie about conspicuous people.

Because there’s a certain poetry about Fern’s intentionally aimless journey. This isn’t an odyssey to find her way back home. In fact, there are several moments where it’s clear that the road (and her van by extension) is her home, and she rejects the notion of what most of us would consider a more traditional home life. She has decided that the most basic form of mobile shelter is all she needs and relishes the freedom it grants her, coupled with some absolutely gorgeous cinematography. She made a tradeoff that was dangerous and arguably foolhardy, especially when she has to make repairs on the van, but there’s a determinative justification for all of it in her mind just to be untethered. There’s a lovely interaction in what appears to be a Walmart where friends of Fern invite her to stay and she politely turns them down. The youngest of the bunch, a teenager who Fern used to tutor, asks her if she’s homeless, to which Fern replies, “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless.” It’s a fine distinction that asserts her free will without denigrating those that are on the streets due to circumstances beyond their control.

There are a few moments here and there where the film can wax a bit too philosophical about the whole thing, from randomly quoting Shakespeare to Bob Wells’ mantra that there are never permanent goodbyes in this lifestyle. But on the whole the movie earns them because the care is taken to show them all as real people, even if they’re ignored by society at large. Nothing is glorified, and nothing is indicted. They’re not hermits, or hippie stereotypes, or freeloaders. These are just normal people who’ve chosen a different path, one that the film goes to great lengths to make sure we understand without any irony or mean-spirited humor. They’re just as flawed as any of us are, but they’re not caricatures. They laugh and cry and live and die just like the rest of us. The only real difference is that when it’s time to go home, most of us go to a domicile while they hit the road. That simplicity is why the film stands as one of the best of the year.

Grade: A-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you think this film’s chances are come Oscar night? What size bucket would you need for shitting? Let me know!

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