Watch The Trailer
Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Frances McDormand plays Fern. When Nomadland opens, her hometown of Empire, Nevada,
has vanished off the map; the sole employer, US Gypsum, has closed its mining operations after
88 years. A recent widow, Fern loads her belongings into a storage unit, loads herself into an
aging tricked-out van, and hits the road. “I’m not homeless,” she reassures a former student.
“I’m just ... houseless.” The movie covers roughly a year of the character’s travels across the
American West as she seeks employment, community, freedom. Fern gets seasonal work in a
massive Amazon packing plant, and somehow Zhao got her cameras inside Bezos-land to
witness the forced corporate camaraderie and breathless factory pace. These are the migrants
of the 21st century, the film implies — these are our Okies.
Through a co-worker, Linda May (cast delightfully as herself), Fern learns of the van-dwelling
life, the unofficial movement of people living a nomadic existence in vans and RVs. Their guru is
Bob Wells, who for over a decade has been hosting an annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in the
high desert outside Quartzite, Arizona. Thousands attend and so does Fern and Nomadland the
edges of fiction blurring into fact and Wells playing himself with years of experience weighing
heavy on his shoulders.
We learn, as Fern does, how to patch a tire and the best bucket to have at hand when diarrhea
strikes. We see the subsistence living she earns making doughnuts at Wall Drug or cleaning
restrooms at national parks. By showing us how close to the edge of disaster the heroine drives
and lives, Nomadland invites viewers to consider the millions of Ferns on the road or hanging
tenuously on to homes in 2021, victims of forces and policies decided elsewhere. The film is
absolutely a gorgeous experience showing the immensity of the western landscape and our
own small place within it. Ludovico Einaudi’s piano-driven score evokes the purity of open
horizons and mountain air, the grandeur and melancholy of being out there on your own.