Based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 non-fiction book of the same name and set against the backdrop of the 2008 recession, the film is a unique mixture of reality and fiction. The events that precede the film are real: In 2011, a US Gypsum plant shut down in Empire, Nevada, effectively killing the town around it. After caring for her late husband, a former Empire resident and widow, Fern (Frances McDormand), decides against permanent relocation and takes her life on the road.
Fern travels in her modified van named Vanguard, working at a wide variety of temporary jobs from California to Nebraska: Amazon fulfillment centers, beet farms, gem stores, the Badlands National Park. The work is bleak; the people are not. Somewhat surprisingly, her workmates and nomad compatriots are also older Americans. While some chose the lifestyle out of a hatred of consumerism, many had no other choice, losing everything in the financial crash years before and finding more security in itinerant work with no house of their own.
Here, the film blends Fern—a fictitious character rooted in McDormand's actual self—alongside real-life nomads playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves onscreen. There's Linda May, a sweet-natured scene-stealer who Fern meets at an Amazon warehouse. Motivational speaker Bob Wells appears as a host of a nomad rendezvous in the desert. And then there's Swankie, a terminally ill traveler who decides dying on the road is a better fate than in a hospital bed.
Most of these nomads did not realize McDormand was an Oscar winner twice over, assuming she, too, was a nomad living their same lifestyle. Actor David Strathairn's appearance as a character named Dave, who has a slight crush on Fern, feels the most unbelievable. While his low-key performance is good, Strathairn's presence is certainly the most actorly and out of place. It's the way he holds his body that gives him away.
However, McDormand-as-Fern acts as a type of intermediary between the nomads' real-life stories and Fern's fictionalized one. The reality-fiction blend isn't quite docudrama territory; instead, McDormand embodies these real-life nomads' truths and feelings into a story of her own. It's a unique character study of both Fern and McDormand as women in their 60s.
Despite Fern's impermanent housing situation, a familiar face is always close by (or "just down the road" as Bob observes in one scene) with just as many "hello again!" moments as there are goodbyes. Fern bonds with Linda May at an Amazon warehouse and again in the high desert and again in the Badlands. A crust punk asks Fern for a cigarette in the southwest only to reappear months later near her parked van thousands of miles away, this time offering her a lighter.
Bumping up on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, I found it easy to relate to Fern's alone-but-not-lonely soul on the road. Perhaps there's a lot we can glean from this film about our unprecedented year spent mostly in solitude: how permanence does not always mean rootedness; how solace isn't found in possessions; how people, feelings, and memories can come back, changed for the better and with new stories to tell.
You can stream Nomadland on Hulu.