Down The Road
Nomadland is streaming on Hulu
The nature of the world is to change. It’s always been so, despite our best efforts to push back against it. Some of us, one percent or so, have the financial means to handle anything. If the economy tanks or they have a health crisis, their limitless coffers allow them to bob gently on the surface of the water.
Meanwhile, people like me, and possibly you, live a different kind of existence. Right now, my family is comfortable-ish. We can pay our bills, occasionally order takeout, sometimes feed the needs of our charmingly avaricious son, and even put a little away in savings. It wasn’t always like that. Not long ago, paying rent required a complicated juggling act that sometimes meant certain bills just wouldn’t get paid. Our local food bank knew me by sight. We were holding on by our fingernails. A cancer diagnosis or job loss would have destroyed our little family.
If that happened, what then? Considering both my wife’s parents and mine are deceased, we have no immediate family to fall back on for a loan or shelter. There are friends who might have taken us in, but how long could we have enjoyed their hospitality? There’s only so long you can stay in a homeless shelter, and on top of all the pressure we would have put on ourselves, there’s the societal pressure. People blithely saying, “Well, just get another job!” Thanks, that absolutely didn’t occur to us until just now.
But the American country is vast. Roads upon roads upon roads. When the Great Recession hit from 2007-2009, something interesting happened. A number of people, many of them older, hit the road. Permanently. That itinerant lifestyle inspired a book by Jessica Bruder, then a film. Nomadland is a film that revels in moments of quiet, yet its power is considerable.
Here’s the thing about Fern (Frances McDormand). She’s not afraid of a hard day’s work. For years, she lived in Empire, Nevada, as an employee of the U.S. Gypsum plant. For a time, USG wielded considerable power, and Fern and her husband Bo assumed there would be stability. There was, and for a time they had good jobs, a good home, and a good life.
In 2011, the bottom dropped out of Fern’s world. To stay afloat, USG closed the plant in Empire. Within six months, an entire zip code vanished. Along with her livelihood, Fern’s marriage ended with the death of Bo due to illness. With a speed that beggars description, her options shrank. The only option left that she could see involved her van.
Fern never thinks of herself as homeless, though. She tells people she’s houseless, and she takes to the road. For a time, she’s a seasonal worker in an Amazon distribution center.* She befriends Linda (Linda May), who invites her to join a nomad community organized by Bob (Bob Wells). Initially, Fern declines. She’s forced to reconsider due to a lack of work and nearly unbearable winter temperatures.
Despite her pain, Fran makes friends easily, and the people she meets are just as friendly. When Fran’s van gets a flat, Swankie (playing herself) chastises her for not being prepared and just as quickly shows her the ropes. There’s a job as a camp host in South Dakota, a stint at a beet processing plant, and a sweet almost romance with Dave (David Strathairn). Through it all, Fern keeps moving forward.
Nomadland isn’t a savage indictment of capitalism. Nor is it a gentle comedy about a woman of a certain age forced to learn the true value of life. Director Chloe Zhao has made something else, a film that straddles the line between fiction and documentary. While Fern isn’t based on a real person, the majority of the people she comes into contact with play themselves. Zhao and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards enter the gathering of van-dwellers and show the community they have built together. The pacing is slow and deliberate, providing us time to appreciate small moments of beauty. Just as gorgeous are the scenes of Fern driving through a series of astounding vistas. Maybe I’m too cooped up from the pandemic, but seeing that white van on the move through some of the most breathtaking parts of our country brought me to tears.
In writing her screenplay, Chloe Zhao is less interested in the standard narrative you might expect. While Fern does have an arc, her story doesn’t follow standard screenwriting beats. That’s a good thing, as Zhao has written a character study. We watch Fern go from place to place, meeting people on the road. The dialogue feels improvised and real, with freely shared tips to survive and thrive. Fern and the rest of the van-dwellers look out for each other, and that sense of “we’re all in this together” is one that seems to be sorely lacking in many neighborhoods. Most important are the repeated conversations about the desire to live a fulfilled life, to take the anxiety many of us are feeling now and use that energy to do something. Before it’s too late.
There’s nothing wrong with an acting performance that’s big. It can be entertaining watching a histrionic Al Pacino performance, or tucking into a Nicolas Cage movie and wondering if you’re going to get one of his transcendentally bananas performances.** I tend to appreciate the more subtle performances, as I think it’s far tougher to play a normal human being with a relatable emotional life. Frances McDormand has always excelled in those kinds of roles, where she plays complex women. As Fern, she’s flawless. Her character exudes restlessness, and some people read that as self-destructive. Yet she doesn’t have a substance abuse problem, nor is she someone in need of redemption. Fern is trying to find her way in the world. When she comes across the nomads, she makes friends easily and forges connections. She built a new life for herself. It’s one that might look unstable from the outside, but it’s hers. Every choice McDormand makes as an actor, from the flick of an eye to a half-smile, feels like it’s informed by the weight of a real person’s life. This is one of the great performances, and My God, does she make it look easy.
The last few years have been about instability. First, we’re worrying about the economy, then politics, then a pandemic. Change ushers in instability. We’re on the brink of a world that looks unfamiliar and new. Nomadland reminds us that the human capacity for adaptation is vast and that roads always offer the promise of moving forward.
*During the filming, McDormand actually worked a number of the jobs her characters had on screen. I like to think that someone ordered the Fargo blu-ray and she packed their order herself.
**It’s trendy to mock Nicolas Cage’s acting choices. Give Mandy a watch sometime, and you’ll be reminded of why that guy won an Academy Award.