Nomadland is not your average Oscar-winner. This is a quietly poetic character study, an impressionistic road-movie with cumulative power that shines a light on a different kind of America – one in which friendship and community thrive away from the “tyranny of the dollar”. Writer-Director Chloé Zhao nudges us to see her nomads as part of an American tradition going back to the pioneers.
The film is based on a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder (Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century) about the phenomenon of older Americans who adopted transient lifestyles travelling around the United States in search of seasonal work after the Great Recession (2007-2009).
One such outsider is Fern (Frances McDormand), forced to uproot home from company town Empire, Nevada, after the local plant closes and her husband dies. She packs what she needs into her customised white van, which she calls ‘Vanguard,’ and drives into an uncertain future.
Fern used to work as a substitute teacher and in HR. Now she temps as a packer at Amazon, a fast-food chef and a sugar-beet picker. Wherever she goes she makes lasting friendships and enjoys the great outdoors in Arizona, the Badlands of South Dakota, Nebraska and California, with its giant redwoods and rugged Pacific coast.
Nature and community are shown here to be the medicine for troubled souls, the things that make us more human. Freedom comes with the open road and not being a wage-slave saddled with a paralysing mortgage. “I’m not homeless,” Fern tells a friend, “but house-less. Home is something we carry within us.”
For all her independence and DIY skills there are times when Fern needs to ask for help, whether it’s with a flat tyre or to borrow money to pay for van repairs. It is almost a shock when she stays in her sister Dolly’s ‘normal’ home, where we get an insight into both her character and the downside of taking off – the people left behind: “you were braver and more honest than everyone else,” Dolly (Melissa Smith) tells her. “You left a big hole by leaving.”
Fern’s character is a long way from McDormand’s previous Oscar-winning role, Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, though both roles are powered by grief. The nearest Fern comes to losing her temper is when her friend Dave (David Strathairn) accidently breaks a family heirloom. Dave clearly wants more than friendship, but Fern is not yet over the death of her husband and follows her dad’s homespun wisdom: “what’s remembered, lives,” conceding that “maybe I’ve spent too long remembering Beau.”
All the film’s drama is played out on the surface of Frances McDormand’s expressive face. Her crags and fissures take on a mythic Mount Rushmore quality; its long-suffering soulfulness bring to mind Dorothea Lange’s famous photo of a migrant mother taken during the Great Depression. “When you get old, you get personality”, says Fern’s friend Linda May.
Like its nomadic characters Zhao’s screenplay is peripatetic. We never know how long Fern spends in any given place. This restlessness keeps the audience on its toes and means that, like Fern, we take away a travelog of memorable images: the silhouette of a cactus as night falls; wild swimming in a mountain pool; stargazing in the desert.
We also take away the film’s message of hope. Nomadland is full of wonderful real people, nomads such as Swanky, Linda May and Bob Wells, and their humanity shines like a beacon in our troubled times.