“I’m not homeless,” Fern (Frances McDormand) says in response to the concerned query of an old friend in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. “I’m just houseless.” And she says it in a distinctly sharp, guarded, and prideful tone that McDormand expertly deploys throughout the film. I’m fine, her voice and slightly narrowed eyes say, but don’t come any closer. Her standoffishness points to the pride of a van-dwelling and only occasionally employed woman who spurns pity while trying to carve out a place for herself in a society that doesn’t leave space for people not defined by steady careers or well-rooted homes.
An elegantly filmed epic about people looking for different ways of living in 21st-century America, Nomadland uses Fern’s questing travels through the country’s wide-open western reaches to explore a ramshackle community while teasing out glimpses of a woman’s roiling, deeply buried turmoil. Zhao lays a light narrative gloss over Jessica Bruder’s immersive nonfiction book, in which the author traveled by van with the drifting class of nomadic workers who by accident or design wander the highways and RV parks of America.
Fern’s case is emblematic of these ramblers. She spent much of her life in a remote Nevada company town where she and her husband worked at the sheetrock plant. After the plant was closed, her husband died, she lost her moorings, and the town itself essentially vanished into the ether. (In one of Zhao’s many nods to verisimilitude, she films Fern’s past in the real-life sheetrock ghost town of Empire, where the 2011 plant closure was so economically devastating that the town’s zip code was eliminated.) When Nomadland begins, she’s at loose ends, sleeping in her van and working at an Amazon warehouse whose gleaming futuristic bulk is a sharp contrast to her narrow rattletrap living space.
At different points in the film, we see Fern laboring with grim-faced determination through other odd jobs, harvesting heaping mountains of beets or bussing tables at South Dakota’s Wall Drug. While she doesn’t begrudge the labor (“I need work, I like work,” she says to a worker at an employment agency), the scattered, temporary, and often grueling jobs are shown in a Dickensian light, as the scraps left from an economy that never put itself back together after the Great Recession. Whether or not Fern would now go back to her old stable life is an open question that Zhao hints at but never definitively answers.
Still somewhat new to the wandering life, Fern learns the ropes from Linda May, a benevolent mentor who was one of the key figures in Bruder’s book and among the many non-actors making up the bulk of the film’s cast. Through Linda, Fern learns about a gathering of other van-dwellers called RTR (for Rubber Tramp Rendezvous). Zhao shows this side-of-the-highway desert gathering as a kind of octogenarian Burning Man or survivalist training camp without all the guns and Remember Waco paraphernalia. Its putative leader is the Santa Claus-bearded Bob Wells, another character from the book playing himself, who preaches about protecting oneself from societal collapse (“the Titanic is going down”).
At RTR and other somewhat on-the-fly meeting spots that Fern finds herself at, a kind of community or different ways of living are presented to her. Not yet nearly as self-sufficient as many of the other van-dwellers she rubs shoulders with across the film, Fern is like a senior student, learning a new way of life but still unsure how much she wants to commit to it. While accepting tips, companionship, and the occasional friendly critique of her van’s decrepitude from people like Swankie—a 75-year-old cancer survivor with a few months to live and who’s determined not to spend any more of them inside a hospital—Fern still holds herself somewhat apart. Even when a lifeline of sorts is offered by kind-eyed fellow wanderer and putative love interest Dave (David Strathairn), Fern remains skittish and a skeptic.
Using a minimal and improvised-feeling screenplay that emphasizes interaction and happenstance over story, Zhao places Fern and the gorgeous landscapes she travels through at the forefront of her film. There are times when Joshua James Richards’s sweeping cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s gently emotive music point to a far more romantic vision than that suggested by Fern’s more hard-bitten attitude. But by juxtaposing beautiful vistas filled with promise, a rotted social safety net, and the scrappy itinerant workers navigating the space in between, Zhao generates a gradually swelling tension underneath her film’s somewhat placid surface. In the end, whether Fern roams the desert or returns to housed life, the unfulfilled promise of America will keep pushing her back to the horizon.