At the end of 2020, I hadn’t realized how much I longed for public recognition of the year’s collective grief. How alone many of us have been, reconciling individual losses against the seismic rupture of that bigger, nebulous idea of what it means to be American. (Somehow, formal acknowledgments of the pandemic and other losses remained conspicuously absent from the endless lead up to the election, though Biden did try.)
With its embrace of realism and critique of the American dream, “Nomadland” shows loss as a common experience that when acknowledged, can draw people together and help with moving on. For me, intuiting the need for that message and delivering it with care makes it 2020’s best movie.
A fictionalized story about a growing American subculture, “Nomadland” was shot on real locations and almost entirely with people who play versions of themselves. The movie follows Fern (Frances McDormand), adrift in the American West after losing her husband and home, their company town ghosted after a gypsum mine closure. She joins a slipstream of mostly aging white “nomads” who float from job to job, state to state, living out of converted vans and trailers. Stoic and proud, Fern declines several offers of help. She tells a family who worries that she’s spending another winter in her van, “I’m not homeless. Just houseless. Not the same thing, right?”
While working Amazon’s holiday rush, Fern befriends seasoned traveler Linda May, who encourages Fern to meet up with others “on the road” at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), an actual nomadic gathering held annually in Quartzsite, Arizona. There, Fern hears from event founder Bob Wells and other itinerants, like the sage Swankie (who later in the movie takes her own profound journey), about why they came to this lifestyle and how to thrive. By and large, they were churned and burned by a broken American economy. As Linda May says, she has worked since she was 12 and still can’t live off social security.
Instinctive, unassuming performances by Linda May, Wells and Swankie, among those who play versions of themselves, adds to the movie’s documentary feel. However, the script doesn’t distinguish who or what is real. Director and editor Chloé Zhao wrote the screenplay based on a nonfiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder (“Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”). Bruder connects the dots between her characters, which includes the three mentioned, as resourceful responders to the 2008 economic collapse. (“Neither powerless victims nor carefree adventurers” she writes.) Without diminishing that spectrum, Zhao’s fictional screenplay amplifies the emotional toll and universality of heartbreak.
Whether a job, a loved one, or an idea one has of one’s self, anyone who has lost something dear can understand Fern’s transience as a metaphor. A death can shake all roads right off the map.
Loss lies at the center of Zhao’s two previous movies as well. In 2015’s “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” a brother and sister living on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation react to their father’s unexpected passing. In 2018’s “The Rider,” also shot on Pine Ridge, a rodeo star reassesses after a life-altering injury. In all three, she casts almost all non-actors or people who play versions of themselves to astonishing effect. With each successive film, Zhao has sharpened her storytelling, resulting in a masterful neo-realist triptych of American identity. Her camera points to the cluttered, claustrophobic interior spaces of the working poor in contrast to the wide-open landscapes and promise of the American dream. The vast horizons may not fulfill the unwinnable economic bargain, but it gives her characters room and reason to breathe.
That’s also the case in “Nomadland.” For much of the movie the scope of Fern’s sorrow remains unarticulated (though one gesture by McDormand speaks volumes). Zhao frames Fern’s mourning as an interior journey, with extended scenes of her alone, heating a can of soup or sorting sugar beets. It’s her solo explorations outdoors, of a cavernous river or the pounding Pacific waves, that seem to make living possible. In windswept wide shots of the rugged plains — like the prior two movies, “Nomadland” also visits Oglala Lakota territory — Fern searches the skyline for some kind of coordinate.
Like so many of us in some version of quarantine over the last year, Fern knows that she must strike a balance between solitude and togetherness. At the RTR, she goofs around in the fancy RVs with Linda May and Swankie and line dances at the Quartzsite Yacht Club, one of the movie’s many real locations. She even agrees to dance with Dave (the magnetic David Strathairn), on the road for his own opaque reasons. Though charmed, Fern returns to self-protection mode, cycling in and out of how willing she is to connect with him for the remainder of the movie. Like grief itself, the film’s wandering narrative refuses a hard shape.
And yet, “Nomadland” is precisely constructed. Ludovico Einaudi’s restrained piano score both respects and questions Fern’s impulse to go it alone. McDormand, always in command and heartbreakingly relatable, comes in and out of focus as herself, an accomplished actor witnessing a fragile American subculture, and as Fern, an aging woman on the brink. This subtle duality only adds to the commentary on the stories we proffer about this country, a place that, like Hollywood, can only exist with a dusting or dousing of sugar.
Neither saccharine nor morose, “Nomadland” provides a road map for how to live with a broken heart. Americans may not want to give grief a home. But in light of the many events over the last year and stretching back to how this nation was formed, to pretend grief has not overtaken us, or worse, to ignore it altogether, only perpetuates the harm. I humbly suggest that this movie helps.
“Nomadland” is now in theaters and available to stream on Hulu.