Maybe you know someone like Fern (Frances McDormand) from where you grew up or where you live. The substitute teacher wise to all your tricks. The supermarket cashier with one eye on the time clock. Your friend’s mother with the sharp tongue, the big heart, and some kind of past. All of them independent minds making their peace with civilized society. This country’s towns are full of Ferns, says Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” until the towns dry up and disappear, and those people blow across America like tumbleweeds.
Zhao came to attention with “The Rider” (2017), a small, nearly perfect film about rodeo survivors and their families; it built drama around ordinary people — played more or less by themselves — without sentiment or well-meaning condescension. “Nomadland,” which arrives in local theaters and on Hulu after winning over festivalgoers and critics for several months, expands on the earlier movie in any number of directions: national, historical, economic, ethnological, political. It’s an epic about what America used to mean and where it is now. It’s a semi-documentary about van life, based on a prize-winning nonfiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder. And it never stops being about Fern.
The way McDormand plays her, Fern is actually more of a cactus. She’s spiky and self-sufficient, wary of letting anyone too close. When “Nomadland” opens, her hometown of Empire, Nev., has vanished off the map; the sole employer, US Gypsum, has closed its mining operations after 88 years. None of this is made up. A recent widow, Fern loads her belongings into a storage unit, loads herself into an aging tricked-out van, and hits the road. “I’m not homeless,” she reassures a former student. “I’m just ... houseless.”
The movie covers roughly a year of the character’s travels across the American West as she seeks employment, community, freedom. Fern gets seasonal work in a massive Amazon packing plant, and somehow Zhao got her cameras inside Bezos-land to witness the forced corporate camaraderie and breathless factory pace. These are the migrants of the 21st century, the film implies — these are our Okies.
Through a co-worker, Linda May (cast delightfully as herself), Fern learns of the vandwelling life, the unofficial movement of people living a nomadic existence in vans and RVs. Their guru is Bob Wells, who for over a decade has been hosting an annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in the high desert outside Quartzite, Ariz. Thousands attend and so does Fern and “Nomadland,” the edges of fiction blurring into fact and Wells playing himself with years of experience weighing heavy on his shoulders.
The film brings on the ever-valuable professional actor David Strathairn as Dave, a congenial but hapless fellow wanderer who might start a thing with Fern if she or the movie were inclined that way. There are visits with Fern’s sister (Melissa Smith) and Dave’s family into which Fern settles with the antsiness of an outdoor cat brought indoors. But the hearts of the heroine, the director, and this film are with the travelers: gentle young castaways like Derek (Derek Endres) and wizened old souls like Swankie (Swankie), the latter unforgettable as she passes along road lore and lives out her days on the great curve of American wilderness.
What’s most striking about “Nomadland” is that it works as both a specific story, about a specific woman, and as a metaphor for a country. The metaphor itself extends in two directions, back into our fabled pioneer past — Fern’s sister makes the comparison explicit when describing Fern to friends — while lodging with a kind of documentary sadness in the present.
We learn, as Fern does, how to patch a tire and the best bucket to have at hand when diarrhea strikes. We see the subsistence living she earns making doughnuts at Wall Drug for a month or cleaning restrooms at national parks. And by showing us how close to the edge of disaster the heroine drives and lives with every mile, “Nomadland” invites viewers to consider the millions of Ferns on the road or hanging tenuously on to homes in 2021, victims of forces and policies decided elsewhere.
Have I mentioned that the movie’s absolutely gorgeous to experience? The cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, also shot “The Rider,” and if both films overindulge a taste for sunset lighting, “Nomadland” is even more attuned than the earlier film to the immensity of the western landscape and our own small place within it. Ludovico Einaudi’s piano-driven score evokes the purity of open horizons and mountain air, the grandeur and melancholy of being out there on your own.
Fern isn’t on her own, of course, although a large part of her wants to be. Zhao’s accomplishment in “Nomadland” is to simultaneously document this moveable feast of strangers and celebrate their iconoclastic, sometimes eccentric ways. With weathered unshowiness, McDormand captures the flint in Fern — the inner dissatisfaction that keeps her from settling anyplace for long. Like Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea in “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), she’s a loner and a leaver by nature, if not as cruel about it. But maybe leaving — the itch to be elsewhere, or on the way to elsewhere — has been part of America’s DNA from the beginning. “Nomadland” balances with spine-tingling grace between respect for that restlessness of spirit and longing for a society that has any notion of how to care for it.
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder. Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Swankie, Linda May, Bob Wells. At Boston Common and Kendall Square; available for streaming on Hulu. 108 minutes. R (skinny-dipping nudity)