Frances McDormand from a scene of Nomadland.

Frances McDormand stars in Searchlight Pictures' "Nomadland."

“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye,” comments Bob Wells in conversation, a real-life nomad who helps newcomers transition into a nomadic lifestyle. 

Much of the cast in writer and director Chloé Zhao’s moving story of wanderers, besides Frances McDormand and a charming David Strathairn as a friendly traveler, are simply playing themselves. They offer a glimpse into our world as they see it, and this compassionate honesty is what ultimately transcends this quietly devastating story to its empathetic heights.

Fern (McDormand) has left her home of Empire, Nevada, after its economic collapse turned it into a ghost town and now lives life in her van, traveling wherever available work will take her. As jobs continue to fall through, a befriended nomad offers that she come join her with the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a gathering of people living life on the road that can offer Fern a community that understands her.   

McDormand shows this struggle to survive as herself with longing stares and pain-ridden smiles, and she does so with a power words wouldn’t achieve. Her portrayal of Fern is richly complex in this way as her edge is contrasted by her ability to make friends as she moves from place-to-place. Fern feels like a character with 60-something years of experience, and with that, it makes her journey all the more powerful.

The technical achievements on display here also coincide with the majesty of the performances as Joshua James Richards’ gorgeous, wide-eyed shots feel as bewildered by nature as the cast traversing it. Combined with Ludovico Einaudi’s breathtaking score, both capture the magical essence of hearing your name ring out over a canyon or waking up to a perfect sunrise. It’s a constant feast for the eyes forcing you to take in all of its natural beauty.

The emotional resonance of Zhao’s picture is so touching because it doesn’t try to make a mountain out of a molehill. It builds its mountains with its visual language, with a slow-burning grief that flashes in McDormand’s eyes, through the surprise of a stranger’s kindness and the subtle sadness of parting from a friend. It earns your trust in its attentiveness and lingers well beyond its initial impact.

I will admit that the movie’s contemplative nature can occasionally lead to some moments that drag, but it doesn’t dampen the impact this fusion of fiction and nonfiction ultimately leaves.   

At one point, Fern runs into an old friend and strikes a conversation with the friend’s daughter, who she tutored. The girl asks if Fern is homeless, and in response Fern says, “No, I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless, not the same thing, right?” 

Zhao’s film feels much in the same vain. It’s fluid like poetry in how it weaves in and out of script and reality, and once you see it, it comes alive off the screen and makes its home within your heart.

Now available on Hulu and in select theaters.