After all the Golden Globes and the Oscars, I knew I couldn’t let another week go by without watching “Nomadland” — which couldn’t be outdone Sunday night, even by Carey Mulligan’s gold dress that was larger than her table. But Carey’s gold dress was just wishful thinking (her Best Actress nomination was for “Promising Young Woman”), because Frances McDormand is an Academy favorite. Not only did she win that Oscar, but “Nomadland” took Best Picture and Best Director also.
Chinese director Chloe Zhao wrote this screenplay based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” And I kept thinking up until the last quarter hour that this felt like an HBO documentary, with Frances McDormand as guide — but for the cinematography and an unobtrusively lyrical score by Ludovico Einaudi.
McDormand, who also produced, plays Fern, a woman who lived happily in Empire, Nevada, until her husband died, and she lost her job when the US Gypsum plant closed. She decides to buy a van and hit the road, like other “nomads,” a term in modern American vernacular meaning people who have no permanent residence, but travel around the U.S. in RV’s and vans, doing various jobs to support themselves. Bruder, a journalist who bought a van and traveled around the U.S. with this group, was interested in reporting the struggles of many middle class Americans post-recession, who have taken to RV’s and vans and temporary work because they can no longer afford a permanent address..
Fern takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center through the winter, where she meets Linda, a friend and co-worker, who is staying in the same RV park. Linda invites Fern to join her farther south at a desert rendevous in Arizona organized to provide support and community to other nomads by Bob Wells, an author and vandweller. Linda, Wells and another character in the film called Swankie are real-life nomads that Chao chose to use to give the film literary integrity, as are many with whom McDormand interacts as she learns survival skills and makes friends traveling from park to park.
Actor David Strathairn joined McDormand as her friend, David. When David’s son finds him and urges him to return home and meet his new grandson, David tries to persuade Fern to join him. She does, later. But his plea to make it permanent falls on deaf ears. Fern hits the road again, this time heading back to Empire, a town that has dried up and is blowing away. We see Fern stepping into her old empty house, looking out the back door toward the mountains far away. And we realize why she’s there. It’s where she was, once, happy.