It’s 2011. Fern is a widowed inhabitant of Empire, Nevada. Its gypsum mine has closed, its postcode annulled.
Her husband Bo worked there. He died in the wake of the 2008 crash. With little pension or income she is leaving to call her van her home.
She heads off into the desert winter to find work. She does a stint at a shiny new Amazon fulfilment centre.
She befriends Linda May. They are allowed to park their homes in the company car park. Then they move on.
Fern starts to converse with working class others.
Some are travellers by choice as an affordable, greener lifestyle. Others are impelled by ill health, poverty and debt three years in the wake of that banking crash.
Without any apparent sense of historical irony they refer to themselves in cruising the vast western spaces as a tribe.
Frances McDormand as Fern and David Strathairn as Dave are pretty much the only professional actors in this tale. The others are largely playing themselves and revealing some awful and some charming backstories that grab our hearts with pity.
It is largely a white female world.
The landscape is beautifully caught in panoramic cold greys, glorious pinks at dawn and golden hours before sunsets. The camera is politely restive around small groups.
The score of piano, cello and violin suits a mood of reluctant austerity.
Nomadland is about capitalism in the raw. It is about Amazon gleefully ruling the economic roost. It is about people’s financial and emotional precarity
This is the third film by Beijing-born director Cleo Zhao.
It packs a deep emotional punch. But that’s mainly because of the time of its release.
What may have begun as an empathetic look back at an under-reported minority consequence of the 2008 crash in Barack Obama-time reaches us now in the wake of Trump, Covid-19 and George Floyd.
That lying, brutal, fearful world has brought intimate loss to millions. Loss of jobs, housing, healthcare, pensions. Loss of family, lovers, workmates, neighbours. Loss of black lives aplenty.
So Zhao has stumbled into acclaim that will resound far further than it deserves to. It will probably clean up at awards ceremonies because it seems to connect with our recent collective losses.
Yet for all its whispered coping strategies—seeing each other “down the road”, living life while you can—it wallows too much in sentimentality.
Fern’s circular tour is not a whimsical game as the seasons go round and round. It is a sad treadmill.
Zhao is also uncritical of the deep historical insult of these mainly white van dwellers describing themselves as a “tribe” as they roam the lands stolen from Native Americans.
And there is an assumed benevolence towards the rapacious work regimes of Amazon.
Nomadland is about capitalism in the raw. It is about Amazon gleefully ruling the economic roost. It is about people’s financial and emotional precarity.
But that requires challenge and revolt, not tolerance or pity.