Writer and director of the screenplay for ‘Nomadland,’ Chloé Zhao, has said, ‘The American road fascinates me. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful and deeply complicated. I’ve traveled it for many years and always hoped to capture a glimpse of it.’ With that in mind, one must think that’s why the Chinese filmmaker chose to get involved with turning Jessica Bruder’s book into a film.
Luckily she did, and we’re the better for it. She opens by giving us some heartbreaking news about the Nevada town of Empire, where our protagonist, Fern (Frances McDormand), has worked and lived. The Empire zip code, which stood for eighty-eight years, has now been discontinued. The reason for this is because the low demand for sheetrock in the U.S. forced the Gypsum plant to close down. Sadly, no one can live where there are no jobs even when leaving is the last thing they want to do.
Fern has been hit twice because she not only now lost her job and her home, but her beloved husband, Bo, has died as well. Fern puts all of her belongings in a storage unit, turns her van ‘Vanguard’ into a well-stocked home on wheels, and sets out to live the life of a nomad. In case you didn’t know what a nomad was, it’s a person who wanders from place to place, living almost totally off the grid. She gets employment where she can find it and, along the way, picks up friends who live the same lifestyle. Her biggest gig is working the busy season at an Amazon Fulfillment center. When Amazon slows down, she gets smaller stints working in restaurants, taking care of a campsite, and working on a beet farm before returning to Amazon and the friends who await her return.
While reading about the film, I learned that many of the ‘actors’ in the movie are real nomads, happy to sell the nomadic lifestyle to America, lest anyone think they’re unhappy in their circumstances. Linda May is one of these characters and actually quite good in her scenes. Fern says it best when she explains that those who choose to live like this are houseless, NOT homeless. Those two things are not at all the same.
Fern then goes to Quartzsite, Arizona, where she sits around a campfire listening to the inspiring Bob Wells, who has plenty of things to teach those who come to the campground for community and discovery. She also meets Dave, played by David Strathairn from TV’s ‘The Blacklist,’ and ‘Good Night, and Good Luck.’ What becomes evident to all who watch Dave interact with Fern is that what he wants from her is more of a companionship than just a friendship. That relationship is something she isn’t capable of or interested in giving. Once Fern lost her husband Bo, her life as a nomad seems to be what keeps her connected to what she once was or at least, who she was with him. Complicating things with the new would bring her back to an existence that she isn’t open to creating again. Love has been replaced with loneliness, which she has embraced.
She fears a health scare but knows she’ll be fine because, though she lives in a van renovated into an RV, the association’s Fern does have will always be there for her. Nomads will remain the one constant for the rest of her life, the life she has chosen for which she makes no apologies. It’s nice to peruse this reality for the length of a feature film, but I wouldn’t have the strength for it, myself. Frances is great in the role and makes being a nomad look somewhat attractive, especially if you can do it in a $300,000 RV, which Fern gets to play in for a moment at an RV show. But then again, that would defeat the purpose, right? Here’s to hoping Fern will find herself no matter the vehicle she’s driving.
*Opening in theaters and on Hulu this Friday, February 19
Director: Chloé Zhao
Writer: Chloé Zhao
Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob May
Running Time: 1h 48m
*Based on the Book by: Jessica Bruder