The Quarantine Stream: 'Nomadland' Finds Beauty In The Broken

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they've been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieNomadland

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu

The Pitch: Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a woman whose factory job was lost with the recession and whose husband died shortly after. Having nothing tying her down to her sad Midwestern industry town, she packs up and heads west, finding jobs where she can and meeting fellow nomads (mostly played by non-actors apart from a lovely appearance by David Strathairn) down the road.

Why It's Essential Viewing: If the critical acclaim that has been lavished on Chloé Zhao's stirring drama wasn't enough to convince you to watch Nomadland, the six Oscar nominations it just earned yesterday should.

Early on in Nomadland, there's a scene where Frances McDormand's Fern attempts to glue together a plate, one of her few precious pieces that she lugged around the country with her in her beat-up RV, after it gets broken by an enthusiastic fellow traveler attempting to help her clean up. She gets frustrated in the process — the plate is smaller, a little more jagged and mean-looking than before. It's not the same plate that it used to be, but Fern doesn't have it in her to throw it away and instead keeps it close, one of the few precious mementos of her life before. But the wear and the tear of the road hasn't made it any lesser, and instead gives it the marks and scars of a more interesting plate that is almost beautiful in its ugliness.

It made me think about the Japanese art of kintsugi: the mending of broken pottery with gold to call attention to the imperfections and create something stronger and more beautiful. Similarly, Fern and her fellow nomads are all broken or scarred in some way. Fern has lost her job and her husband and gone West in what might have perhaps been an ill-fated attempt to live out the the kind of rugged individualism myth of America. But while she is faced with hardship and the thankless labor of Amazon factory lines or fast food gigs — the grey, dull sheen surrounding these capitalistic ventures reflecting the bleak realities of post-recession America — Fern finds a community among her fellow broken nomads. They've all taken to the road for some reason or another: one nomad was diagnosed with cancer and would rather live out her final days with the wind in her hair and dust in her lungs than in a sterilized hospital room.

That's what Nomadland is: an exquisite slice of Americana that embraces beauty amid pain and loss and grief and the relentless trudge through life. Nomadland achieves a kind of serenity in its restless spirit, an acceptance of a different way of life that no one better embodies that than McDormand, who gives a quietly spiky and soulful performance for the ages. She's aided by Chloé Zhao's even-handed direction, which takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, preferring to let the characters and real-life nomads drift through life in an aimless, pensive manner that makes Nomadland almost akin to a docudrama.

It's no wonder that some of the film's most moving moments comes from some of its most spontaneous moments. One piece of advice from real-life nomad guru Bob Wells perfectly captures the lyrical earthiness of Nomadland: "One of the things I love most about this life is that there's no final goodbye. You know, I've met hundreds of people out here and I don't ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, 'I'll see you down the road.' And I do."