It’s rare that a feature film, not a documentary, is based on a non-fiction book. Does the adaptation work? Yes, but mainly because of the extraordinary abilities of the actress who holds “Nomadland” together. Two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand works closely with young, innovative director Chloe Zhao (“The Rider”) as they convert Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century into a movie.
Fern (McDormand) has lost her husband and their home in Empire, Nevada, located on the edge of the desert. The U.S. Gypsum Corporation closed its mine in 2011 because of the declining need for sheetrock. Caught in a recession when many homes have lost their value and no jobs are available in Empire, Fern decides to travel the country, taking seasonal jobs wherever available. We watch her renovate an old commercial van and create a livable space where she can cook and sleep and store a few treasured possessions.
Her first job is bubble-wrapping items in an Amazon warehouse, swamped with orders in the weeks leading up to Christmas. When that employment ends and she once more hits the road, Fern meets Linda May, who tells her about a group of road wanderers like herself that gather once a year in Arizona under the leadership of a white-bearded man named Bob Wells. Often called Santa Claus, Bob makes YouTube tutorials and instructs his live audiences on how to travel throughout the country living in an RV or van. These nomads create their own community and frequently meet up with one another on their travels. Bob can never say goodbye to his audiences, substituting, “See you down the road.”
During the months following the Amazon seasonal warehouse job, Fern works in a rock quarry, cleans bathrooms in Badlands National Park, harvests and sorts beets in Nebraska, does janitorial work in an RV park, and scrubs pots in a diner. She also meets up with the familiar faces of other nomads—Linda May, Swankie, Bob, Dave. There is even a spark of what could be a romantic attachment with Dave (David Strathairn), who offers her a home to land in. But Fern prefers the freedom of the road. She never sees herself as “homeless” but tells others that she is “houseless and there is a difference.” Even when faced with a soft bed to sleep in, Fern prefers sleeping in her van.
One feature that distinguishes “Nomadland” from most movies is the use of non-actors. Except for MacDormand, Strathairn, and Melissa Smith, who plays a brief role as Fern’s kind and concerned sister, all of the characters that Fern encounters on her lengthy journeys are real-life nomads. They all have interesting life stories to tell and they all carry with them a courage and dignity that sustains them and engenders an unexpected self-confidence.
Enhancing the movie’s visual quality is the camera work of Joshua James Richards who worked with Zhao on “The Rider,” also a film that captured the vastness and rugged beauty of wide open spaces. The musical score of Ludovico Einaudi enhances the scenes of quietude and sparse dialogue creating a mood by relying mostly on single instruments, frequently the piano, rather than orchestral sounds.
“Nomadland” is available on Hulu.