Like Ani Simon-Kennedy’s “The Short History of the Long Road,” Chloé Zhao's “Nomadland” (Fox Searchlight) is about people living on the fringe, by choice or by circumstance.
The difference between the two movies is that the latter has the always reliable Frances McDormand, poised to tie Meryl Streep for Oscar wins.
Zhao based her screenplay on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” The writer/director also blurs the line between drama and documentary by filling the cast with non-actors. In other words, the people that main character Fern (McDormand) meets in her travels are the kinds of people about whom Bruder wrote.
“Nomadland” begins in 2011, shortly after sheetrock maker U.S. Gypsum shut down its Empire, Nevada plant, essentially turning it into a zip code-less ghost town. Fern, a widow, packs up what she needs from her storage unit, pays off a debt in cash, and hits the road in her camper van. After checking into an RV park, she heads to her job at Amazon where she works in the warehouse. It’s a job her friend Linda (Linda May) got for her and one she enjoys. At least that’s what she tells a concerned friend she runs into in a sporting goods store. When the friend’s daughter asks her if she’s homeless, Fern replies that she’s “houseless,” not homeless, explaining they are not the same thing.
Linda is also the one who tells Fern about the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous run by Bob (Bob Wells), which is essentially “boot camp for beginner nomads.” It’s in Arizona, on Bureau of Land Management land, which means the approaching winter won’t be as harsh as in Empire. Initially, Fern says no, but then changes her mind. This turns out to be a good experience. The slightly socially awkward Fern meets new people, including the outspoken Swankie (Charlene Swankie), as well as Dave (Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn).
The important thing to remember is that Fern was already a nomad before she became a nomad. She left her parents’ house when she was young. She married someone like her, who preferred to be out on the land and almost off the grid. Not everyone is cut out for this way of life. Even Fern herself occasionally appears to have her doubts, particularly when she is faced with engine trouble.
Still, Fern makes the best of the situation of her making. She finds various short-term gigs, such as working as a camp host with Linda at an RV park. She also accepts Dave’s invitation to join him when he leaves for Wall Drug in South Dakota, and the chance to make some money working at the tourist trap.
But everything changes when Dave’s musician son James (Tay Strathairn, son of David) shows up and invites his father to visit him and his pregnant wife. Fern stays behind, but the above-mentioned vehicle break-down, sends her on a side journey to the home of her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) to borrow money for repairs.
A dedicated nomad to the end, Fern may not make the kinds of decisions with which some audience members agree. But at least she remains true to herself. “Nomadland” is ultimately a story about people for whom “I’ll see you down the road” has real meaning.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.