“Nomadland,” a hauntingly beautiful film starring Frances McDormand, is currently playing at the M.V. Film Center. Based on the 2017 nonfiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, this fiction film is directed by Chloé Zhao. Nomads are people who wander but are not lonely. They live in vans and trailers, mostly in the deserts of the Southwest. Acclaimed actress McDormand, who won an Oscar in 2017 for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and one in 1996 for “Fargo,” plays Fern. She may win another one for her “Nomadland” performance.
In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, Fern’s husband Bo lost his job when U.S. Gypsum closed its plant in Empire, Nev. The town dried up as well, and Bo died shortly afterward. Viewers meet Fern as she carries boxes of clothes to her storage unit. It is an example of what her life has become. Viewers see her driving in her van, which she calls Vanguard, followed by scenes of her eating inside it. She works at a temporary job for an Amazon fulfilment center, then does her laundry at a laundromat. Through such details, viewers see her life unfold.
Bit by bit, viewers learn what happens next, and begin to see Fern’s willingness to live alone. At a Walmart-like big box store, she bumps into a woman with her daughter from Fern’s previous life, who wants to know if she needs a place to stay. “We’re worried about you,” the woman says, a reminder of how conventional people see her. The woman’s daughter asks if Fern is homeless, and she responds, “I’m not homeless. I’m house-less; it’s not the same.” We also learn that the daughter is a former student of Fern’s when she was a substitute teacher in Empire.
Fern refuses the offer, and the film proceeds with the quotidian details of her life. We see Fern visiting a laundromat and folding her clothes, more everyday snippets of her life. When Fern discovers a dog, she leaves the animal tied outside, and walks off, averting a potentially sentimental moment of connection. At an employment interview, she is told she may not be eligible for work. When she parks her van outside a gas station, she refuses an offer of a bed in a church, and the viewer sees her huddled under blankets, facing one of the challenges that comes with her preference for a life alone.
Yet a kind, friendly woman, Fern is not without temporary friends living lives similar to hers. So it goes, as the viewer watches her drive through night or day and stop at a trailer park, for another, short-lived taste of friendship. As a reminder of her solitary existence, she walks through the trailer park, and the film illustrates the group there enjoying themselves, an example of what she chooses not to embrace. Inside the van, she looks at photos of herself, a reminder of the life she has left behind. After her aging van breaks down, she visits her sister to borrow the money to get it fixed.
The film develops these opportunities for permanent connection that Fern repeatedly steers clear of. When she visits her friend Dave, played by David Strathairn, he tells her he likes her in an invitation for connection. He offers her a guest house where she can stay. She sleeps in the bedroom of Dave’s house, but skips out in the morning before anyone wakes.
Finally, she visits Empire, now a ghost town. She returns to the storage unit and empties it, leaving her belongings behind. There are many more examples of her daily life, until Fern drives from the desert towards the mountains, having chosen to be alone, but not lonely.
As Fern, McDormand gives a powerful, appealing portrait of a self-contained woman who has chosen an unconventional but satisfying life.
Information and tickets for “Nomadland” are available at mvfilmsociety.com.