Nomadland is set in 2011, post the closing of a United States Gypsum Corporation unit in a company town in Nevada, USA. The film starts with Fern, the protagonist, played by Frances McDormand, choosing and collecting things from the storage unit for her nomadic journey. It is apparent that she was also an employee and has not just lost her job but also some one dear to her (which we later get to know is her husband), which makes her take the decision of living a nomadic life, moving from place to place in an RV (recreational vehicle), looking for seasonal odd jobs in-between that are just enough to pay for her travel.
Early in the film, the daughter of a friend asks her if she is homeless; she says that she is "house-less but not home-less". Later in the film we get to see how thoughtfully she has actually assembled her RV and how the things that she has chosen have a special place in her heart, like the bone china her grandfather gave her. This gesture gives the old clichéd saying 'home is where the heart is' a new meaning of its own. After her dear friend Linda May's persuasion she attends the desert rendezvous in Arizona, which is a support system and community headed by Bob Wells for fellow nomads. These people have an instant sense of family-like warmth. That is because these people have one thing in common: for them the whole world is their home. At the surface, it feels as if most of them are just tired of the economic system and the harsh nature of the market that uses humans like work horses, who work their whole life to earn their livelihood and die without actually living. But as we go further we get to know the varied reasons for choosing this life, which range from health issues like PTSD, to helping heal oneself from the loss of a loved one, to just not wanting to have any regrets at the end of their lives.
Through Fern's journey we get to see and understand the true meaning of being free. We watch her travel and experience the beautiful and bewitching wilderness, beautifully captured by DOP Joshua James Richards, without trying to hide the imperfections and keeping the visuals as raw and real as possible. And mind you, this journey is not overly romanticised at any point. We get to see how taxing it could be to do something as basic as taking a shit or surviving in an RV in temperatures low enough to turn a lukewarm glass of water into ice within minutes. We also see Fern doing odd jobs like cleaning puke in a toilet to make ends meet. Therefore, the beauty and one of the biggest triumphs of the film is that when you watch her go through this you feel like you are with her, experiencing the same.
The film has some fantastic dialogues, like how in their nomadic life style there is never a final goodbye and they always part by saying 'see you down the road'. But this isn't a very dialogue-heavy film and nor does it have a heavy plot: most emotions are conveyed through mere gestures; in the first scene, Fern gives a warm and tight hug to her husband's coat before leaving, almost breaking down. That scene may just give you a lump in your throat. The impact this scene has and how it establishes the relation between Fern and her husband, whom we know nothing about at that point in time, speak volumes about the power in Frances's performance in this film. It also helps that most people who are acting along side Frances, other than David Strathairn, who plays Dave with adorable warmth, aren't actually acting since they are all playing themselves, which makes their performances feel authentic. So when they are talking about their tragedies (which I believe aren't fictional), one can feel the pain in their eyes. And because the film for the majority of its duration has been shot on location, the milieu that it showcases feels authentic. Through this film, we are made to see life through the perspectives of these people, who are usually infamous for not living in the reality and looked down upon. It gives them a sense of dignity by showing us the depth in their decision; thus making it more meaningful and making us less judgemental about their choice.
It can also be perceived as a film that talks about how when one is finally free, literally and figuratively, this experience can contribute to one's healing. This is a film that grows on you, and, just like any good art, the perception and the meaning of it changes from person to person. And the fact that it is beautiful even when it is looked at from different perspectives makes it what it is: an extraordinary piece of art.