Nomadland is a stark and hauntingly poetic portrayal of poverty in America. It is perhaps the most pertinent film of our desperate economic times. Based on the book by journalist Jessica Bruder, Nomadland follows a lonely widower after the 2011 collapse of the United States Gypsum Company in Empire, Nevada. The town was abandoned and lost its postal code. The people left behind adapted to survive. Some chose to live in vans or recreational vehicles to save money. Driving around the country to find work wherever they could. Their hardscrabble existence formed a community of road travelers. Seeking solace in each other when their country failed them.
Nomadland opens at a gigantic Amazon shipping facility. Fern, played superbly by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand, arrives for her shift. She is part of Amazon’s CamperForce program, where seasonal workers travel to various warehouses throughout the year. Fern lives in an old utility van. She’s new to the road lifestyle. Fern receives guidance and needed friendship from Linda (Linda May), a kind road veteran. She teaches Fern simple tricks to make her living space more comfortable.
When her Amazon job ends, Fern is still broke and unable to find local work. She’s forced to hit the road again; sleeping in freezing parking lots, using a bucket for her bathroom, and making her simple meals on a single burner stove. Fern decides to follow Linda to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Arizona. There she meets the group’s leader Bob Wells, who gives Fern sage advice on how to find happiness in her solitude.
Fern’s journey is both inspirational and heartbreaking. She worked hard her entire life for the American dream. When Empire became a casualty of the Great Recession; she had nothing to show for it. Fern refuses to live with relatives or concerned friends. Her van became her savior. She finds a sense of freedom and purpose in the vast stretches of the American west. Fern uses her grief to fuel determination. She works tooth and nail for a mere pittance. But is a burden to one and secure in her freedom.
Writer/director Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider) is transcendent in her third feature film. She presents Fern’s circumstances as a matter of fact. There’s nothing sensational about her working in factories, on potato farms, or cleaning toilets. Fern is in her sixties, has no children, or any other recourse to get money. She must take any job she can get. That said, her life on the road is soulful and rewarding. Fern’s lack of creature comfort does not define her. Chloé Zhao films stunningly beautiful scenes of Fern alone in the wild. She lost everything, but her spirit is constantly rejuvenated by her connection with nature.
Nomadland addresses a hard truth with unvarnished sensibility. Millions of Americans are facing Fern’s dire financial situation. Their jobs are gone. They’ve lost their homes. Social Security and meager pensions are not enough. Living in a van may be a lifestyle choice for some, but is the only choice for others. Fern is a fictional character, but Linda May and Bob Wells are well-known advocates for RV and van life. Their message, you can be a slave to the almighty dollar, or choose another path to fulfillment.
Nomadland is a twenty-first century parable that redefines the American dream. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Nomadland will be a strong awards contender across the board. Frances McDormand and Chloé Zhao have crafted a slice of Americana that every adult in this country needs to see. Nomadland is produced by Cor Cordium Productions, Hear/Say Productions, and Highwayman Films. It will have a week-long virtual screening on December 4th at the Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema. Followed by a theatrical release on February 19, 2021 from Searchlight Pictures.
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