by Willard Manus
The world of NOMADLAND isn't often depicted on American movie screens. It's a world of poor, alienated folk who don't count for much in the current scheme of things. But writer/director Chloe Zhao sheds light on those neglected people in a bold and masterful way, winning numerous major cinematic prizes for herself (including an Oscar).
NOMADLAND focuses on Fern (the always-superb Frances McDormand), a widow who lives in a van and works odd jobs to survive: shop clerk, substitute teacher, waitress, temp at an Amazon shipping center. Fern must also cope with innumerable personal problems: illness, loneliness, depression. This she does with a steely kind of stoicism, absorbing life's blows silently and stoically, doing what she must to stay alive. An unsung American hero, self-reliant, honest and tough, Fern is also capable of caring about other people, especially the old and infirm.
The characters in NOMADLAND are working-class folk eking out subsistence lives as they motor round the USA in search of a paycheck. They are victims of the post-industrial collapse--and shame--of our capitalist system. In town after town, city after city, these people were cast aside when the factories and mills that once provided them with a livelihood were shut down by their owners, who decided it was cheaper to let the Chinese and Pakistanis produce their goods. There was no safety net for any of them, no retraining, no financial help other than a skimpy social security check.
Fern and her friends were obliged to pull up roots and take off in search of employment. But as NOMADLAND shows so convincingly, these desperate people did not turn on each other in dog-eat-dog fashion. On the contrary, they banded together communally in trailer parks and desert canyons, showing their humanity by sharing food and possessions, practicing a crude but effective kind of socialism.
It's in one of those watering holes, called Quartzite, that we encounter a bearded, charismatic man named Bob Wells (played by Wells himself) who is a spiritual leader of the nomads, a guru. Bob's commonsense philosophy goes like this: "The Titanic is sinking so it behooves us to get the lifeboats out and get as many people possible in them so that we can take care of each other."
Fern benefits greatly from Wells' physical and moral support; she in turn is quick to come to the aid of her best friends, David (David Strathairn) and Swankie (Linda May), when they are beginning to surrender to darkness and despair. Fern's love and compassion helps them to recover their balance and find a reason--and a way--to go on living.
Director Zhao portrays the world of these forgotten people in a vivid, unshowy, deeply moving way.