Nomadland

“Nomadland,” starring Frances McDormand, is currently available on Hulu. (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

When I move to a new town, one of the first things I do, is to look for an art house cinema. Not a cineplex in a mall complex, though that will certainly do in a pinch. What I really love is a small, older theater, sometimes a single screen that features independent films, retrospectives and foreign films. In Telluride that was the Nugget but I made do with screenings at the library, an occasional outdoor screening and a few movie series that played at the wonderful Michael D. Palm Theatre at the high school. Someday, there will be movies in Telluride again.

Since leaving Telluride, I’ve lived in two states and four towns and I still haven’t found my home. So, as you can imagine, “Nomadland” had a particular resonance for me. While living in New York, I traveled an hour to see the film at the drive-in for the Woodstock Film Festival. Was it worth it? Oh yes. When it opened in movie theaters this weekend, I traveled to my nearest art house movie theater in Pennsylvania and watched it, mesmerized, again. 

I think this weekend was likely the biggest box office for movie theaters since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Roughly 38 percent of cinemas are now open in North America according to The Hollywood Reporter. As more theaters open their doors to customers, audiences have hesitated to return. With a few likely Oscar contenders such as “Minari,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and“Nomadland” generating some buzz off their nominations for the Golden Globes, many older movie fans have ventured out for the first time since theaters closed. “Nomadland,” with its gorgeous cinematography and the talented Frances McDormand in her most intimate role, is a great choice for the big screen.

The Guardian had an informative piece about the man featured in “Nomadland,” Bob Wells (Cheap RV Living). In Off-Road, Off-Grid: the Modern Nomads, by Stevie Trujillo, Feb 4, Bob Wells tells his story and explains why it has resonated with so many people. He saw a huge demand for affordable housing, especially among those trying to survive on Social Security in this country. Wells created Home on Wheels Alliance (HOWA), a charitable 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 2018. With the help of his team and volunteers, Bob helps people who've been squeezed out of traditional housing move from a state of crisis to financial stability and finally, to become contributing members of the mobile community. 

“By learning to save money and live rent-free in their vehicles, Howa’s clients preserve their independence, self-sufficiency and dignity while also making friends within the larger nomad community,” the story reads.

Director Chloé Zhao (“The Rider, Stories My Brother Told Me”) who's now filming the big-budget Hollywood film, Marvel’s “Eternals,” wrote the screenplay based on the book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder. Zhao wisely choose to make the film with a small crew in an almost documentary style, and to feature many non-actors who were living the RV lifestyle. McDormand is featured in close-ups as she learns to navigate this challenging new life. There's a wonderful juxtaposition of the full-screen view of McDormand's face, furrowed by age and grief, smoking an ever-present cigarette in contemplation and then in the next frame, her character alone in the wilderness. She experiences the awe of being amongst the redwoods, the hard work of a potato harvest, and the desperation of having nowhere to park her home. 

With an incredible soundtrack by Ludovico Einaudi, and almost every scene filmed at sunrise or sunset, the film glows with vivid landscapes or soft ambient light from McDormand's lantern or her vintage Santa Claus lamp. Joshua James Richards, the cinematographer, captures the beauty in these otherwise harsh, challenging environments. Zhao takes us on this journey in the hopes that in understanding this specific story of grief and healing, we can have some empathy for the thousands of displaced Americans journeying along the backroads and those struggling in our inner cities and affluent suburbs.

One of my favorite films of last year, I hope that everyone will seek it out on Hulu or if possible, see it on a big screen. In a scene toward the end of the film, as McDormand wanders through a family home, looking with yearning at the baby toys, the piano, and the inviting kitchen, she lingers at the family dining table and we feel her wistfulness. Here is family and contentment and warmth. Her hand caresses a chair as the score (beautiful piano music) underlines the pull of home. She walks reluctantly, but resolutely to her van. This isn't her home and the comfort that it offers, that lures her to stay, comes with obligations she's not willing to surrender to. Retaining her independence and her dignity, she continues her journey. She must send off a friend who had to depart, donate those things that she's no longer attached to, and say a final farewell to the one place she felt whole; the one home where she felt settled and loved. As she steers her van back out on the open road, there's a hopeful feeling that she will find her way to joy and home.

Drinks With Films rating: 5 thermos of RV Park coffee shared with fellow travelers