The film, from director Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”), is a travelogue centered on Fern (Frances McDormand), a widowed and unemployed Nevadan who puts most of her belongings into storage and hits the road in her van, retrofitted to be a home on wheels. She drives around the US from work gig to work gig. One job is holiday-season packing at a gargantuan Amazon warehouse in Virginia, another harvesting sugar beets in North Dakota.
Along the way, she connects and reconnects with like-minded travelers, older Americans who, for one reason or another, are living out of their vans and RVs, doing seasonal work and occasionally coming together to trade tips and celebrate nomad life. None of the characters we meet are in truly desperate circumstances, but most seem one serious bout of bad luck away from oblivion. Their vehicles range from minivans to tricked-out trailers. Most of the people in Zhao’s film are playing themselves, other than McDormand and a couple of others (a craggy David Strathairn appears as one of her road buddies).
“Nomadland” is important for many reasons, not least the triumph of a female filmmaker and star (I would not be surprised to see McDormand scoop up more awards herself this year). As cultural commentary, the film is both an invitation to see America through the eyes of its nomads, and a haunting tale about the many reasons one might end up living that life.
I count myself among the camper-aspirational, though the current demand for models my husband and I covet, styled like the vans that are popular across Europe, are so in-demand it’s hard to find a used one, and shockingly expensive to buy a new one. My parents, meanwhile, have long been recreational RV’ers. They send us stunning photos of the vistas from their campsites, and stories about where the best places to stay are (Good: Includes dog park. Less good: Near racetrack).
There’s a stark divide, of course, between traveling in a camper for recreation and taking to the road because of your financial situation. But that gap may not be as wide as it seems. For many, the pandemic year has been a time of social and economic instability, for reassessing priorities and plans for the future.
It’s hard to watch Zhao’s film without worrying for the fates of older nomads working hard physical labor and operating without, it seems likely, health insurance. But her portrayal never invites our pity. To claim control of your own destiny, it suggests, is courageous — “part of the American tradition,” as Fern’s more settled sister says (whether or not she means it). At the same time, Zhao points at the cruel lack of safety net: Linda May, who is one of Bruder’s central subjects, talks about working her whole life only to find she had minimal Social Security funds.