Coined in 2003, solastalgia is a term for someone who has lost their sense of home and community, despite the physical location still existing. In Nomadland, a Searchlight Pictures film from Chloé Zhao that’s now playing in select theaters and streaming on Hulu, audiences will meet a woman struggling with solastalgia, trying to cling to a life that doesn’t exist for her anymore. Through a year in her life, audiences come to understand a lifestyle that at first glance feels very foreign.
Fran (Francis McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) is a middle-aged woman with a van and a small amount of possessions to her name. Having built a life for herself and her husband in a Nevada mining town, the postal code for which was retired when the mine closed a decade ago, the widowed woman now leads a nomadic lifestyle, traveling to wherever work can be found, but always returning to the place she can’t bring herself to call anything other than home.
Bookended by the holiday shopping season, Nomadland is in many ways a visual poem about the cyclical nature of life and routine. It’s a film about a character who put all her eggs in a basket that couldn’t hold everything together and is now rolling around with them, refusing to try another basket on for size. Populated by a cast of eccentric characters, Fran’s world has moments of promissory stability that she can’t bring herself to accept.
The cast of supporting characters are often portrayed not by actors, but by people who actually live this type of nomadic lifestyle. Based on a book by Jessica Bruder titled Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, Chloé Zhao sought out some of the real-life characters depicted within the pages and brought them onto the screen. The film has a genuine feeling of authenticity down to filming in real locations, like the popular tourist destination on the highway to Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug.
Nomadland evokes feelings in its audience akin to driving by a house you used to live in, seeing it with a different color scheme, finding different cars parked in the driveway, other people living in a life that was once yours. It’s a story not about a woman who abandoned her life, but who’s life abandoned her through no fault of her own. Fran as a character is like shattered china plates that no amount of glue can properly put back together. With gorgeous cinematography of landscapes and sunsets juxtaposed against barren interiors of a van Fran calls home, the visual language of Nomadland creates a visual dichotomy.
Frances McDormand delivers yet another unforgettable performance as Fran, who’s backstory is dished out in small bites throughout the film. Her character is a paradox, at times showing a profound ability to make herself content in situations that would distress many while also finding herself incapable of letting go of a past that simply can’t be her present. In McDormand’s hands, you not only manage to understand Fran, but to deeply empathize with her.
Going back to Nomadland’s poetic nature, the plot spends some time wandering around aimlessly like Fran’s character. It’s a brilliant move, but at the same time one that makes the film less than a perfect viewing experience. A few moments of stalled plot are forgivable in a film that makes you think as much as Nomadland does, but in a competitive streaming landscape, I wonder how many viewers will give up on it before the credits roll as a result.
I give Nomadland 4.5 out of 5 mini light-up Santa figures.