Chloe Zhao’s third feature film, Nomadland, is a contemplative, quietly assertive film about a little-seen segment of the American population: a transient working class of American laborers who are largely older, casualties of the Great Recession and the true economic anxiety of spending a lifetime at work only to realize the safety nets—Social Security and employer-provided retirement benefits—come up short. Based on a book by journalist Jessica Bruder, Nomadland follows Fern (Frances McDormand, reminding us that her steeliness can be as intensely quiet as it is incendiary), who hits the road after her small Nevada mining town literally dies when the zip code is discontinued by the post office. Fern lives out of a van she calls “Vanguard”, which she customizes to be as homey as she can make it.
Zhao writes, directs, and edits Nomadland, and it sings with her lyrical sensibility of vast spaces, humanity rendered small against the remaining grandeur of the American West. She once again relies on primarily non-professional actors—McDormand and David Strathairn are the only recognizable faces on screen, and only a few other professional actors appear, including Tay Strathairn, Peter Spears, and Cat Clifford (whom Zhao discovered while making her first feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me). Everyone else in Nomadland is an actual “workamper” or other variety of modern nomadic road warrior, which gives their stories journalistic truth amidst Fern’s fictionalized tale. Often photographed around campfires, it is easy to connect this migrant labor force to cowboys of the Old West, but where cowboys are still held up as representing a particular brand of American freedom, the workampers represent the failure of the American dream.
They put a good spin on it, though. No one complains about their circumstances, they just share matter-of-fact stories about losing jobs, homes, and loved ones, and choosing the migrant life as an alternative to subsistence living on meager Social Security savings or other indignities. The workampers are mostly older, retirement age Americans failed by the promise of “good work, good life”, but they are getting on to the best of their ability. They follow seasonal jobs from Amazon processing plants (Amazon runs a “CamperForce” program of seasonal employment, so prevalent is this phenomenon) to National Parks to roadside attractions. At several points, Fern is offered charity, but she would rather make do for herself. The workampers form a roving community, helping each other, sharing tips and tricks of the road, and reclaiming dignified lives on their own terms.
Some might look at Nomadland, with its multiple moments of roadside and in-van bucket sh-tting, and wonder where the dignity is, but this is a film with a backbone of quiet dignity. Fern faces a thousand small cuts against her pride, from being denied full-time employment to borrowing money from her sister, but the dignity of Nomadland is less about the day-to-day reality of transient life in a van, and more about the greater dignity of finding a way forward in an America that has no place for older workers. The workampers have found a way to live outside the nine-to-five grind on their own terms. There is dignity in their determination and community, and in the refusal to be swept under the rug. This is a slice of life we hardly ever see, and it’s both a reminder of the painful failure of America’s promise and the indomitable American spirit. There has always been a class of Americans who, when faced with loss and hardship, pack up and head west.
Nomadland will not let you look away from real economic anxiety, while still showing how people pull together even in the strangest circumstances. Some people can settle into homes, others can’t resist the pull of the road, and in a pointed scene, Fern questions the true wisdom of Americans being encouraged to go into debt to own homes they can’t afford, which underscores the very lifestyle the workampers eschew. To some, living out of a van and following seasonal work seems crazy, but for the workampers, it’s the only alternative to a poisonous system that would rob them of autonomy and independence. Nomadland passes no judgment on either side, but there is no denying the freedom Fern finds in travelling the West from job to job. Zhao continues to paint moving, melancholy portraits of the modern American West and the people who inhabit it. Fern is her latest masterpiece, a self-possessed pioneer living on her own terms in a broken America.
Attached - Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao at Telluride on Friday.