Now, going into this one, I knew absolutely nothing about any kind of story or source material behind this picture. It turns out that this is actually a fictional exploration of a lifestyle found in a nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder.
It’s a lifestyle that I find to be something of the last gasp of the wild west. The film is described as a “neo-western” wherever I read about it, and I think it really fits that moniker. Not “neo-western” as in the tropes of your traditional “western” fare, but a more literal definition of people roughing it in a way in the west-southwest. Life in a camper van is not something I reckon most of us consider, so this is a look at a society that is so close to ours yet so far from us.
Fern (Frances McDormand) is leaving her longtime town Empire, Nevada, for greener pastures. Empire, as it was, was a company town for the United States Gypsum Corporation, but since everything’s just about dried up in the depression of 2008, the ZIP code for Empire was discontinued and everybody is headed out.
Fern becomes a seasonal worker for Amazon, living out of a van that Fern herself furnished for living in. She eventually runs into Linda May (playing herself) and eventually Fern finds herself living in something of a recreational vehicle commune in the desert. From here, Fern basically lives out a year here, meeting people like Dave (David Straithairn) and Swankie (also playing herself).
The film follows Fern doing odd jobs, sleeping in parking lots and trying to survive in a society that has abandoned her. Fern’s basically ready to retire, but for the life of her she just can’t let go, so, she perseveres.
First off, this film is absolutely stunning. It’s a shame I couldn’t see this one in the theater, because I don’t think my little computer screen can do this film justice. Being in nature for most of, if not all of the runtime will tend to do that. What I especially like about this particular film is the very light plot.
Nomadland isn’t here to tell any kind of epic story or give us a condescending lecture. It’s a movie with people, all of which are playing themselves outside of Frances McDormand and David Straitharn. Seeing the people living in the commune, they are real people living how they normally do. This film is a stone’s throw from just being a documentary about these people. It shows us how people can come together to help each other survive because they probably couldn’t make it out in the wilderness of the workforce by themselves.
If anything, just watch this film for the cinematography. When people say the phrase “every frame a painting,” this is the type of film they are talking about. I can’t really comment on performance because these are just real people living real lives.
I can’t comment on the story, really, because it’s just Fern living through a year. It’s not a story; It’s a vignette. An episode of a life that could happen to anyone. It’s hopeful, sad and every single thing in between.