Bleary-eyed they find places to pull off the road and rest. Then, in the early morning hours, before anyone notices them, they are back on highway,” writes Jessica Bruder in Surviving America in Twenty First Century. This non-fiction book has been adapted by Chinese director Chloe Zhao for his American film Nomadland. The notification title of the book is about older working Americans who have adopted an itinerant way of life in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, and move around the country in their vans in search of employment. The story centres on 60-year-old Fern, a stoical, hard-working woman. Fern and her late husband had worked for a mining company in rural Nevada for most of their adult lives. When the mining company is shut down, she needs to move out of the town. At the company’s storage tracker, Fern removes her belongings, packs her bags and hits off on a road trip exploring life as a modern-day nomad. Lonely and isolated, Fern’s van, the only vehicle on the road, is surrounded by vast, empty space with mountains at a distance. Fern’s resilience keeps her morale high. As she travels from snowy plains to the desert, she meets other nomads. The film has a simple and contemplative plot. It throws light on Americans who represent societal afterthoughts, mostly older people left behind and those on the sidelines of society.
The film begins with a scene where Fern is sitting in her van after finishing work at an Amazon plant. Her co-workers offer her a place to live. She declines the offer and says, “I am not homeless, I am just houseless.” In her van, she looks at old family photographs and cooks canned soup on a burner. Fern’s commanding presence holds the character-driven film together. The succeeding scenes reveal her employment counsellor informing her that she is not fit for any work she has in her mind. She takes this blunt truth in her stride and moves to South Dakota, where she starts working as a janitor in a restaurant.
As she moves from one destination to another, she meets other nomads. As they share their stories of struggle, they become an intrinsic part of her life. Linda May, a hardy nomad in her sixties, tells Fern that she had been working since she was 12 and had raised her two daughters without any social security. Seventy-year-old Sawnkie shares her agony of suffering from cancer. Then there are others, who talk of their late spouses. Many have been tossed aside by corporate America. The lonely roads, rugged mountains and rocky deserts are an intrinsic part of their lives. The film ends with Fern making her last visit to the now-empty Nevada town, the factory and home.
Captivating cinematography by Joshua James Richards and Ludovico Einaudi’s background score playing delicate piano melodies give the film a new-age feel. Frances McDormand as Fern delivers a clear-eyed quiet performance infused with her no-nonsense demeanor. Nomadland is a gentle but forcefully moving tale.