The waiting is over for "Nomadland," a superb film that ponders what home means
Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Melissa Smith and Derek Endres. Written and directed by Chloé Zhao. Now playing in available theatres, also streaming on Disney+. 108 minutes. R
Early in “Nomadland,” Frances McDormand’s itinerant worker Fern watches as Angela, a fellow Amazon warehouse employee, shows off an arm tattooed with song lyrics by the British singer-songwriter Morrissey.
“Home, is it just a word? / Or is it something you carry within you?” reads one couplet, which Angela describes as her favourite.
Morrissey may not be the first artist who comes to mind with Chloé Zhao’s cinematic portrait of restless roamers of the American West, the favourite to win Best Picture and potentially five other awards at the April 25 Oscars. (It was also my choice for best film of 2020.) More obvious allusions are Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Yet these Morrissey lyrics nail the essential quest of “Nomadland,” a movie that speaks to modern disillusionment, rootlessness and resiliency in both poetic and profound ways. The “magic hour” widescreen cinematography of Joshua James Richards and a gorgeous piano score by Ludovico Einaudi make the feeling all the more palpable.
Fern has every reason to ponder the meaning of home. She has recently endured the loss of her beloved husband, Bo, and of their company town of Empire, Nevada, where they worked for many years at a gypsum mine now shuttered by dire economic circumstances. Fern also worked as a cashier at the Empire Store and as a part-time teacher at the school.
It’s late in 2011 and Empire is now a ghost town — even its zip-code has been eliminated. Still grieving her losses, Fern, at the age of 61, has chosen to hit the highway in a second-hand customized van she calls Vanguard, looking for work and a new direction for her life. She has no children or nearby relations to hold her back, although she’s just sentimental enough to pack in her van a set of old china dishes given to her long ago by her father.
Fern is a woman of few words and fewer vanities. She wears no makeup, cuts her hair short in a gas station sink and wears a jacket left by her late husband. She doesn’t have much money; her needs and wants are basic.
Her plans are similarly Spartan, but she isn’t thinking of retirement: “I need work,” she tells a job clerk. “I like work.”
She doesn’t feel much need to explain herself, except when necessary.
“No, I’m not homeless,” Fern tells a young inquisitor. “I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?”
A Christmas sorting gig beckons at an Amazon warehouse elsewhere in Nevada. The work is hard and the pay is low for members of the “Amazon CamperForce,” but the RV parking and amenities are free.
Writer/director/editor Zhao (“The Rider”) draws the role and story from real life. She calmly dramatizes the urgent journalism in Jessica Bruder’s acclaimed 2017 nonfiction book, also titled “Nomadland,” about rootless and RV-residing older Americans. These modern nomads, who someone in the film compares to early pioneers, seek seasonal gigs and cheap lodging throughout the American West, in an era when many jobs are heading offshore and pensioners are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. (The book is subtitled “Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.”)
Some of author Bruder’s interviewees, including real-life nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, play themselves in the film, giving “Nomadland” the weight of documentary truth within a narrative framework. Zhao uses many non-professional actors in her films; to her, authenticity is more valuable than acting.
Zhao similarly eschews tropes from past road movies. Fern meets a sweet hound dog at a trailer park early in her travels and discovers the dog has been abandoned by a previous owner. Many other filmmakers would make this mutt Fern’s travelling companion, and many of the nomads Fern meets have pets. Zhao is not like other filmmakers.
There’s likewise nothing pro forma about the chance for romance Fern encounters on the road, after she meets Dave (David Strathairn), a sad-eyed fellow van dweller who seems pleasant enough but just a little needy.
There’s little about Fern that could be called needy. When unexpected van repairs force her to swallow her pride and ask for a loan from her affluent sister, Dolly (Melissa Smith), we learn just how stubbornly independent Fern has always been, to the detriment of family relations. But she was also an inspiration to Dolly, as a woman who knew her own mind and who wasn’t afraid to speak it. Fern calls things as she sees them, which makes her a risky dinner guest.
“Nomadland” is like that, too. It doesn’t sentimentalize the nomad lifestyle. The people we meet in the film are much like Fern, who have accepted their mobile situation more than embraced it. The highest praise the nomads bestow on a location is not the natural beauty of it — and there’s plenty of that in the film, including spectacular views of South Dakota’s rocky Badlands National Park — but rather it’s “a great place to park.”
(This review was originally published in the Toronto Star.)