What it’s like to live in America for those left behind.
Nomadland will mostly walk away with at least one Globe this Sunday. If not more. Not only is it well-acted and beautiful to look at, but it also paints an accurate picture of the American dream for most people in this country after they’ve worked for 40 years plus in a minimum wage job — nothing. And sometimes, still have to enter the gig economy in their retirement years just to afford to eat.
Nomadland is based on the book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Buder, a journalist who writes about subculture. She spent months living in a camper van, documenting itinerant Americans who gave up traditional housing and hit the road full-time, enabling them to travel from job to job and carve out a place for themselves in a precarious economy. It is a stark and realistic portrayal of Americans living in the gig economy.
What is brilliant about Nomadland is it follows one story, Fern, played seamlessly by Frances McDormand in her second-best role since Fargo. McDormand is one of those rare actors you can’t catch “acting,” like Brando or Streep. She inhabits Fern. Fern just lost her husband of 40 years. In nearly every shot, you glimpse both sadness and resolve on McDormand’s face. You feel her missing her husband.
It shows us the bleak picture and the downside of globalization and economic inequality — the hard truth — and a closeup of the people left behind in America.
Fern’s town, Empire, is one of many towns affected by the great economic collapse of 2008. The film takes place in 2012. Empire, Nevada is a very real place or was until the town’s plant, Gypsum, shuts down. Empire disappears as well, with even its ZIP Code.
Fern travels from place to place in her Ford Econoline van while working seasonal jobs in factories, farms, and Amazon fulfillment centers while living out of her van.
In her previous life, her husband was the plant manager in their town of Empire, where she worked also as a factory worker. With nothing left — no town, no friends, no family, no job — she hits the road in her van, which she has decked out herself. She adds a small bed in the way back, a sink, a large bucket that stands in for an emergency toilet, a small cabinet for a cup or two, a piece of wood she’s attached to the cupboard, giving her a little shelf.
She is proud of the home she built.
The one possession that brings a smile to her face is a few china pieces from a dinnerware set with a little flower pattern on them; her father left her. This is here home, the only thing she has left.
You see both shame and dignity when she talks about her life on the road to a few neighbors she runs into on her way out of town. Later, farther into her journey as a nomad, when Fern is forced to have her van fixed, the mechanic tells her it would be cheaper to ditch the van and buy a new one than to fix it. She admits, eyes downcast, to the mechanic that the van is her home and irreplaceable.
One of her biggest problems living on the road is parking her home on wheels — parking overnight is her major expense. Except when working her seasonal job at Amazon — they pay for her overnight parking.
Her first stop is the nearest town with available work — a town with an Amazon warehouse, where we meet Linda May, Jessica Butler’s book’s driving force, playing herself. Most of the extras in Nomadland are not actors. They play themselves, which gives the movie an authentic feel and the audience a front-row seat to the uprooted lifestyles of various charters in the film. We get to see the inside of an Amazon warehouse. To Amazon’s credit, they allowed filming at one of their warehouses. McDormand is credited for obtaining permission to film inside a real Amazon warehouse where she did real work, like taping up boxes.
What I found beautiful about Nomadland was the community of nomads. Absent an actual “place” or town, they gather together at certain times of the year — half support group and half family reunion — developing real friendships.
They share in more community than most of us, hidden away in our big houses, each kid in a different room or sitting all together on a couch staring at one screen with little screens in our hands. The nomads may not have one stationary home or a neighborhood coffee shop to meet people, but they experience a sense of community more than most of us do. They meet in the desert, acting as their backyard with a beautiful, big sky as the backdrop. They are good friends bonded together through a certain lifestyle. They are at once lonely, but also not. Like all of us.
What is intriguing and beautiful about their lifestyle is it demands they be awake, alive, now. One short scene is a shot in a laundromat with only Fern and Linda May occupying the space. While waiting for their clothes to wash and dry, they’re sitting closely together at a table laughing and working on a jigsaw puzzle, having a good time, enjoying the simplicity of the moment, no TV blasting in the background, no one distracted by an iPhone. They are together, just being.
The story unfolds slowly. The best films surprise me, and this one does. Good films don’t slam us over the head. They unfold in drips. We learn more about Fern as a character in each new scene, revealed in small ways demanding the viewer pay close attention, making us think. Movies these days are so obvious. This one is not.
Just when you’re thinking, God, this movie is bleak, Fern’s hopefulness sneaks up on you.
What I noticed about the film is that it’s audibly quiet, making everyday noise loud and noticeable: the scrape of a chair, the whirl of the clothes in the machine, a knock on Fern’s door in the morning waking her, the quiet of being out in nature alone, the sound the gravel as Fern walks to the Amazon job, a sip of tea, the shattering of plates.
Fern occupies the space in her life fully. We notice the sounds with her; she takes a moment for what it is and occupies the life she has chosen. It is her place, only hers.
Don’t we all want that?