I feel very weird writing this, and that is because I felt divided in watching a film about the nomadic lifestyle of people living out of their vans. Yet, it's frankly part of the brilliance of this movie for me.
I recognize that I'm a very privileged person who approaches things through that lenses. Most times, a film like this would have me feeling sorry for these people and their circumstances in a rather abundant way. Some have referred to this as poverty porn (a rather crude term), but that was also one of the biggest criticisms of last fall's Hillbilly Elegy. However, I believe the brilliance of this film is that it at times subtly and at other times not very subtly tells someone like me to stuff their sorrys, and look at these people with reverence and respect for who they are, who they choose to be, and how they choose to live without being aggressive, brash, or glib.
*Spoilers: Set around 2012 and in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Nomadland follows the story of Fern (played by the always wonderful Frances McDormand), a widow from Empire, Nevada (a former mining town that went belly up after the declining need for gypsum salt for drywall) as she moves from place to place of the course of a year working as a Amazon seasonal warehouse employee, a camp host in the Badlands of South Dakota, a beet harvester, and a Wall Drug seasonal service worker. During her travels, she comes to bond with several of her fellow nomads including Bob Wells (the film's guru on Nomadic living), Linda (her co-worker at Amazon and the Badlands that introduces Fern to Bob), Swanky (a fellow nomad with terminal cancer), and David (played by a favorite actor of mine David Strathairn, another fellow nomad, co-worker at Wall Drug, and friend). All of these people pop in and out the story to subtly enhance one of Bob's teachings: there are no goodbyes in nomadic living, only "see you down the road".
Director Chloe Zhao gets so intimately close and personal to Fern's journey during the course of the year that you see her through every part of her everyday life and struggles even down to how she cooks, how she sleeps in freezing temperatures, and her bathroom habits. Yet, none of these small moments ever seem small or mundane (a testament to the writing and editing of this movie), and the inclination I have to first recoil and then empathize with someone who literally has to shit in a pale is driven out of my mind every time Fern declines to take the easy roads offered to her. You can clearly see the quiet strength in McDormand's performance when she declines the offers I would gladly take from her sister and from David. Most times, these people are depicted as having no choices or options. Instead, Zhao uses these most to highlight the active choices that some of these people (even including Fern) are making. It's certainly not the case for all of the nomads, but its certainly enlightening to know that there are people who are actively choosing this, and I think this is the real dignity of the film.
One of the things it made me think more deeply about is how, around the timing of the film, my grandparents sold their home to live a more nomadic lifestyle where they spend half to 2/3s of their year traveling around the country with their friends building churches. Frankly, it was just something I accepted about their life choices without giving much thought, but now, in watching this, I think I can appreciate more of what they are choosing to do with their remaining years, the communities they are a part of on these projects, and a certain warmth to the nomadic lifestyle.
*Non-Spoilers: Overall, I think this is a fascinating and touching movie that I personally took a lot away from, and, given that it's widely available now with the advent of streaming on Hulu, one I would recommend most should see. It's one of the rare times I've felt that a movie has actively showed dignity to a marginalized group that I could tangibly feel while watching it. That's why I not only think this movie deserves front-runner status at April's Oscars, but should win Best Picture.