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Nomadland takes a seemingly very simple idea and turns it into something much more complex and rewarding.

The Open Road

Fern (Frances McDormand)
Fern (Frances McDormand)

Nomadland is about a certain lifestyle, that of the classic nomads and itinerant workers. They are drifters and they each have different motivations. Some have been “aged out” of the workforce. Some are Vietnam vets grappling with PTSD. Some followed society’s generally accepted path of work, marriage, children, mortgage — only to find themselves unhappy throughout. Others are struggling with personal loss and need to pull themselves together in a way some might consider unconventional.

It’s the therapy of the road versus the therapy of the couch.

Nomadland is based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, which features undercover investigative journalism and the eyebrow-raising subtitle, Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.

In order to transfer Bruder’s book from page to screen, screenwriter/director Chloe Zhao (The Rider) takes an interesting tact. She brings in Frances McDormand (Fargo) and David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) to play fictional nomads — Fern and Dave — acting out a narrative alongside real-life nomads playing themselves. Further blurring the lines, Strathairn’s real-life son, Tay, plays his character’s fictional son, James.

It’s cool.

But it’s also not particularly ground-breaking in and of itself. Check out The Trip series sometime. Starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, those movies (edited from a British TV series), playfully blur the lines between reality and fiction, mixing a pre-planned narrative with ample room for improvisational conversations that build off the duo’s real-life personas.

The Open Heart

What is rather exceptional here is the extent to which Zhao blends reality and fiction. Within this portrait of an overlooked America — perhaps underappreciated is a better term — are some stellar performances from real nomads, some of whom had never even heard of their Academy Award winning co-star, Frances McDormand. At the top of the list is a woman named Charlene Swankie. She’s 70-something and she’s got quite a spirit.

Swankie’s real-life story is something else; she’s lived in Iran and Liberia and she’s kayaked in all 50 states (who knew such a thing was even possible). In the movie, she plays herself, but there’s that blurring of reality. Her movie narrative is a little different — but wholly touching. In fact, her performance as she emphatically recounts her life experiences (a sort of Swankie/Zhao narrative fusion) is wonderful — and it’s the kind of performance that raises a question some might chafe at. Is Frances McDormand a case of Hollywood privilege? McDormand’s getting the Oscar buzz (no doubt, going full-frontal is the kind of daring the Academy adores), but Swankie in so many respects out-shines her professional co-star. Instead of baring her body, she bares her soul.

It’s rather stunning to realize the denouement of Swankie’s cinematic persona — which is toasted by McDormand and a cadre of real-life nomads — is merely a fictional arc so effectively played out by all involved.

This is one movie that gets more rewarding as the layers are peeled away.

The Open Narrative

As for McDormand, her character, Fern, is a woman who has basically lost it all. Her husband passed away and she lost her job when the USG sheetrock facility in Empire, Nevada, closed. The shutting down of the business shut down the entire town and removed a ZIP code from active service.

Fern’s story becomes the vehicle for Zhao’s narrative, which also weaves in experiences documented in Bruder’s book. Fern works at an Amazon warehouse during the peak holiday shipping season (and it was quite a coup to score permission to film inside a real Amazon facility). As Fern moves from job to job — which includes a stint as a campground host in the Badlands — she meets people and hears their stories.

Some share non-traditional views on life and what should be valued. One of the best is worn as a tattoo — that home isn’t a structure, it’s something you carry within. Some people choose to not own — or even live in — a home. They are not homeless, they are houseless.

That last bit is a very important consideration that must not be allowed to get lost in the conversation. By its very design, America is not a “one size fits all” kind of country. It never has been and was never supposed to be. So, keep that in mind while watching Nomadland and be cognizant of the occasional anti-capitalist (“tyranny of the dollar”) sentiment that pops up. (Not at all ironically, those references are found out in the vast countryside, not within the walls of the Amazon filming location).

It takes all kinds to make America great. Not again, but always.

Zhao creates quite a canvas of locations and experiences. It’s a movie built around small moments; there isn’t a lot of shouting and arguing in this one, which is its own reward. And there some really nice moments of release, such as Paul Winer playing a piano in a dive bar. Who is that guy? What’s his story? He’s onscreen for only a minute, but he makes a stylistic impression and there’s a certainty he has plenty of stories to tell sometime — preferably over a beer.

Toward the end, Fern visits Dave and James on a beautiful, large country-style home and farmland on the California coast. It takes quite a few dollars to make that happen and live that life. It’s all warm fuzzies and family; it’s for all intents and purposes the dream state derived from having successfully navigated all those things some find uncomfortable or challenging — marriage, children, mortgage, financial management.

One night, Fern leaves her comfortable bedroom of cozy, plush pillows and comforters and goes back to the cold confines of her utility van for some shut eye. For some, what many would consider to be a dream home is simply too much to handle.

That whole relationship between Fern and Dave is an odd one; while McDormand and Strathairn are friends in real life, this cinematic friendship is an odd, asexual, ambiguous relationship. But it serves the purpose of illustrating the network of friends and support that can develop out there in the world of nomads.

As with everything else, life is always a balancing act. For some, it takes an alternate path to find that balance.