Leonard Zwelling

There has been a great deal written about this Chloe Zhao film. It won the Golden Globe award for best drama and the director won as well. It is an Oscar favorite.

Most of what I have read focuses on the characters in the film, real people who play themselves with the exception of Frances McDormand and David Strathairn. Most of the “actors” are actual folks who like the McDormand character, Fern, had normal lives at one point but have taken to the American road in recreational vehicles tricked out for living. As the Fern character says, “I’m not homeless. I’m houseless.” She used to live in a company town around a gypsum plant until the plant and the town vanished as no longer needed and with it went her life. Since then she has taught school and done other odd jobs. She is clearly bright and educated. Most of those she meets are Baby Boomers who have not so much dropped out as moved to an alternative world of temporary work, subsistence, and travel on the road. They are not hippies on a commune, but nomads in the American desert.

This does not sound like a promising premise for a feature-length motion picture. If the plot was the main attraction, or even if the characters were, that might be correct, but I see this film in a completely different light. To me it’s a love letter to the “other” America. It is a metaphor for the America few of us see, but which used to be common. Neighbor helping neighbor. Business using barter. Giving and taking and not keeping score. For most of us, this is a vanished America. But for a self-selected few, it is reality.

For most of us who live in houses, condos, or apartments, our lives take for granted indoor plumbing, running water, abundant electricity, grocery stores, and free interaction with others. But the pandemic and the recent freeze in Texas have made such every day conveniences seem not to be so easily taken for granted any longer. For a while there, we were all living like these American nomads, unsure of tomorrow and trying to recall yesterday.

But Fern, who goes from job to job to earn enough money to feed herself and buy gas, is part of a different America. But it is still an America of community, where people bump into one another at various stops on a gorgeous road through the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, California and Arizona.

The David Strathairn character is the enigma. He keeps bumping into Fern and is obviously attracted to her. But she is not interested and when he accidently damages a keepsake from her father, Fern is visibly angry, an emotion of which there is so little on the road. He eventually stops wandering, moving in with his son, indicating that he was never really one of the nomads to begin with. Fern goes about piecing the keepsake back together as if trying to find her past and cement it in her memory. She even visits her conventionally housed sister and her family when in need of money. The sister offers her a place to stay. Unlike the Strathairn character, she turns down the permanent help. She is destined for the road, the RV and the American desert.

These nomads are the modern day pioneers, crossing the deserts and mountains in an endless cycle of temporary employment and support circles around campfires.

Nomadland is surely a portrait of one nomad, but it is also a glimpse into an America that once was and which is vanishing save for these few adherents. The scenery is breath taking especially if you have been to some of these places in the Badlands or California or the Arizona desert. The majesty of America is not lost on the nomads, the director or the viewer. America is still unequalled in its magnificent openness.

This is a tone poem to an America long gone, but still being nurtured by a limited few. These are not hoboes hitching rides on rail cars. They truly are American Bedouins crossing the desert by RV, looking for I don’t know what. But do they find it? They do for the looking is the finding.

See the movie.

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