Even more important for the film’s purposes, Fern becomes part of a spotty but valued makeshift community of other nomads. She goes to a desert campground where Bob Wells leads his annual gathering of nomads in what he calls the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Like the jobs Fern has and places she visits, the event is a real thing, and Wells is among the non-actors who become characters in Fern’s life, several of whom tell her their stories. In one of the most affecting scenes, Fern talks to a friend named Swankie, a woman in her seventies in failing health, who reflects on her life.
Other travellers tell of spouses and friends who have died. Many have been tossed aside by corporate America. Those histories are presented without sentimentality or condescension – an admirable choice, but one that occasionally makes Nomadland feel a bit clinical. Even then, McDormand’s commanding, deeply empathetic performance holds the film together. She is so convincing and unaffected that it feels as if Fern is another non-actor whom Zhao magically gets to be natural on screen. Only one character, a younger man in a minor role, is awkward and breaks the spell of fiction. Similarly, Ludovico Einaudi’s score, which often has a New Age feel, creates minor distractions from the film’s unflinching realism.
The freedom of fiction allows Zhao and McDormand to make Fern the embodiment of all the nomads’ stories, but she’s also distinctly herself. Her life, solitary more often than not, is unglamorous and precisely depicted. In her cramped van, she looks at old family photographs, cooks canned soup on a single burner and uses a plastic bucket as a toilet.
David Strathairn is one of the few other professional actors, playing a nomad named Dave who has a lopsided friendship with Fern. He seems attracted to her while she is more detached. Strathairn is solid as always, but the relationship feels like a device meant to goose the plot in what is essentially a plotless, character-driven film.
It was a wise move on Zhao’s part to eventually include some suburban homes, where Fern and Dave have relatives ready to help. They may not have ideal choices but they both have alternatives to life on the road, options they have rejected. One of those family members, trying to be kind, compares nomads to pioneers. That is true enough, but as the bracing Nomadland reveals, it is also too simplistic a view for today’s US, with its ageing population in a devastated economy.
Nomadland is released December 2020 in the US and Canada, and January 2021 in the UK and Ireland.
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