Sometimes it takes a director not born in the United States to accurately portray our country on film. For those insulated in the safety of the suburbs or hiding inside gated communities, the story unfolding in Nomadland is one of another America running up against the tattered narrative of social mobility earned by hard work promised by our parents.

Here, Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a woman who wanders the country looking for work, living out of her van. For years she had lived and worked in a small town in Nevada that completely evaporated once the gypsum mine there shut down. Now, Fern works for Amazon during their holiday rush in the winter and then migrates inland for the summer to work as a camp host at a national park in the summer. While Fern’s family worries about her, it isn’t a lonely life as numerous other people in similar situations form ad hoc communities centered around their vans and campers.

Director Chloé Zhao, who was born in and spent much of her childhood in China, has already explored this milieu- America’s unseen – in her breakout film, The Rider (2017), focusing on a wounded rodeo rider and his quest to return to riding horses. Here, she turns that same empathic eye on an older woman looking to survive in a country where the wealth divide keeps growing. In The Rider, Zhao worked exclusively with nonprofessional actors, so adding McDormand and David Strathairn into the mix this time was a bit of a risk. Luckily, both actors give authentic, lived-in performances that feel natural alongside the non-professionals.

Based on the 2017 book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, Zhao and her crew lived the life of the film’s subjects during a five-month shoot. Like The Rider, Nomadland is absolutely stunning to look at: Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards present a portrait of the American West that emphasizes both its beauty, look at those pastel sunsets, and its cruel, desolateness where hard-bitten winters and long, hot summers can be unforgiving.

Fern’s story, however, is one born from tragedy. Nothing is permanent in her life, a lesson learned via the coming-together and then going-their-separate-ways nature of the van communities. Included in the film is Bob Wells, a man who runs a popular YouTube channel on how to live a life on the road. In a pivotal moment near the end of the film, Wells explains to Fern that you never truly say goodbye to someone. Instead, paths will cross again somewhere up the road. This is a lesson Fern takes to heart as she encounters the same folks in different places throughout the film. But what of the dead? Wells claims even they will be waiting for us up the road.

Another place where Nomadland succeeds is by showing us the camaraderie that exists between the people on the road. The movie could have also slipped down the path of a cautionary tale full of danger, but Zhao wisely never puts Fern in a perilous situation other than cleaning up disgusting toilets in the Badlands or not having someplace to park the van for the night. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t sad; Fern doesn’t choose this lifestyle. We learn that she is a widow and without a safety net. What happens to someone like Fern who is alone and jobless? America can be a lot like its landscape: cruel and unforgiving, a place where you can work for a company for most of your life and still be left to fend for yourself at the end of the day.

Like she did in The Rider, Zhao searches for a spark, a testimony to the indefatigable human spirit that still burns despite adversity. Fern still finds pleasure in her life, whether it be viewing bison on the side of the road, enjoying a campfire with friends or relaxing in a cool mountain stream. Just like the protagonist in The Rider, Fern is down, but definitely not beaten. Nomadland may present an America many of us don’t want to see, but it’s one that we should recognize with wide-open eyes.

Summary
In her third feature film, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland presents an America many of us don’t want to see, but it’s one that we should recognize with wide-open eyes.
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Up the Road
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