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‘Nomadland’ Shows Hollywood How to Make a Movie About ‘Real Americans’

Forget the patronizing ‘Hillbilly Elegy’: Frances McDormand and filmmaker Chloe Zhao tell a story about a widowed wanderer that skips the poverty-porn cliches

Early on in Nomadland, as good a film as any that’s come out in 2020, I wondered if Frances McDormand was actually playing herself. Her character, who lives in a van and takes odd jobs across the American West, checks in for her new gig, and the woman with the clipboard can’t find her name. “Try M-c-D,” McDormand tells her. It’s the only time we get a hint of the character’s last name, and when we finally hear her first name, Fern, it makes you do a double take: Did they just say Fran? 

My confusion is understandable — Nomadland is all about the erasing of movie-star artifice to get at something authentic and real — but it’s indicative of this excellent film that what might have been a gimmick ends up tying in perfectly with what McDormand and writer-director Chloé Zhao are trying to achieve. Journalists often praise actors for “disappearing” into roles — which usually translates to “Hey, in this movie, they’re not as good-looking as they normally are!” — but McDormand’s stripped-to-the-bone performance is something different. You never forget that it’s McDormand in the part, but you also marvel at just how open and vulnerable she is as Fern. She’s not playing herself, but she’s the rare movie star who can pull off the illusion while portraying a “regular” person.

Based on Jessica Bruder’s heralded nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Nomadland is an expansive movie that’s tempting to simplify. It’s a story about the flailing American underclass. It’s about the gig economy. It’s about loss. It’s about “women of a certain age” who find themselves with few options. It’s about the “real America.” Technically, all of those descriptions are accurate, but assigning meaning to this meditative road movie undercuts what’s so wonderfully unresolved and enigmatic about its deceptively simple narrative. Zhao has crafted a film that welcomes different interpretations without being reduced to one overarching idea. Nomadland isn’t about Frances McDormand playing herself — to be clear, she is not playing herself — but because Nomadland never nails down what it’s about, you feel like you’re participating in discovering its deeper themes along with the filmmakers. That’s appropriate for a movie about a main character who seems to be on a constant search, but for what?

The film is set in the early 2010s and is inspired by actual events. In 2011, the town of Empire, Nevada, essentially ceased to exist: US Gypsum closed down its plant there, and soon the city’s zip code was discontinued. Fern is a widow from Empire — she stayed in the town for a little while after her beloved husband died — but now she’s decided to pack up her belongings, load up the van and drive. She gets a temp job at an Amazon fulfillment center, but once that ends she heads off to join up with fellow nomads, all of them living out of their vehicles in designated rest stops. They’re off the grid, proudly so, and Zhao features several actual nomads as her film’s supporting characters. 

This plotline might make Nomadland sound like one of those condescending, “Oh, how do the lowly survive?” poverty-porn dramas. Fear not, this is not Hillbilly Elegy, where well-meaning Hollywood liberalism destroys everything it touches. Zhao previously made The Rider, which looked at South Dakota’s rodeo culture by telling a fictionalized story starring real rodeo riders. She has a feel for the “real America” that never feels patronizing or showy. Nomadland is a departure from her because it’s headlined by a two-time Oscar-winner — and also Oscar-nominee David Strathairn in a supporting role — but Zhao’s striving for a type of authenticity remains unblemished. I say “a type of authenticity” because a movie like Nomadland reminds us that filmmakers who make a big deal about how “real” their stories are usually over-inflate the lengths they went to in order to shatter the illusion of fiction. Great, you used non-actors or wielded a handheld camera or totally improvised the dialogue. Big deal: Zhao torpedoes those pretensions by simply doing things plainly, never parading her techniques. Nomadland is “authentic” and “real” because it all flows so naturally.

Another way that Nomadland sidesteps the traps that usually befall a film like this is Zhao isn’t interested in trying to “fix” Fern. Her homelessness isn’t a product of addiction or mental illness or having some sort of character flaw. What’s striking about Fern is that, while she’s still grieving for her dead husband, she’s not really running from anything — there’s no “lesson” she’s supposed to learn so that she can get back to “normal life.” (In Nomadland’s opening scenes, she runs into a teenage girl she used to tutor, who asks her if she’s homeless. Fern corrects her: I’m houseless, she says, there’s a difference.) In her 60s and with no ties to anything, Fern is free to wander, and that’s what she’s going to do, making friends along the way, including Dave (Strathairn), a fellow nomad who seems to be sweet on her. She enjoys Dave, but she stays at a distance, not encouraging his flirtations. She wants to be unencumbered, not because of some sort of personality defect. It’s just the way she prefers things. 

Fern (Frances McDormand and Dave (David Strathairn)

Zhao has demonstrated an impressive ability to get non-actors to give un-self-conscious performances. That’s especially true in her new movie, in which Fern meets Swankie (an artist and kayak enthusiast), Linda May (who quickly becomes one of Fern’s best friends) and Bob Wells (a mentor for Fern in navigating the nomad life). These nomads and others — some of whom were interviewed by Bruder for her book — aren’t background players meant to cheer on Fern or help inspire her along the way of her narrative arc. They’re just other people like Fern who, for different reasons, chose to turn their back on society. Some have wanderlust, some are rebels and some couldn’t afford anything else. Just as there’s no judgment placed on Fern, there’s none on the other characters. There are many ways to live a life. Camping out in a van is one of them.

Nomadland has received glowing reviews since its premiere at Venice, where it won the top prize, but one of the mild dissensions came from The Ringer’s Adam Nayman, who praised the film but also felt that, despite McDormand’s excellent work, the very fact that she’s Frances McDormand undercuts the proceedings. “As good as McDormand is,” he writes, “she’s also too iconic to ever disappear into the role, and while her recognizability doesn’t keep Nomadland from hittings its marks as an absorbing realist drama, it’s hard to fully reconcile her presence with the people she bounces off of in a series of ambling vignettes.” I felt the same way, somewhat, after my first viewing, but a second screening convinced me that our relationship with McDormand’s on-screen (and offscreen) persona actually helps inform the performance. We love Fern in part because we love Frances McDormand, who skillfully blurs the line between the two women. 

It’s always dangerous to assume you “know” actors — and I’ve never met McDormand — but in her awards-show appearances, she often comes across as someone who has no patience for Hollywood glitz. She’s an actor’s actor who radiates integrity — she doesn’t care about distractions like glamour or celebrity. She’s serious and she doesn’t suffer fools, which is why so many people adore her — she doesn’t feel like a phony. That no-nonsense demeanor is superbly utilized in her portrayal of Fern, who’s not an overly emotionally open person. She holds things close to the vest and often keeps people at a distance — except for those, like Swankie and Linda May, that she really cares about. And she certainly doesn’t need a man like Dave to “save” her. She’ll save herself just fine, thank you very much. Fern is what we might imagine McDormand would be like if she found herself in her character’s position. 

But there’s also another element to McDormand’s real-life persona — one that doesn’t get talked about as much — that I think is equally crucial to her portrayal. When she won Best Actress for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, her acceptance speech — which is now best known for her advocacy of inclusion riders — was, often, adorably awkward. It’s not just that she refused to be polished in that bland, professional way that Hollywood stars frequently are — she acted genuinely uncomfortable, giggling nervously and seeming ill-at-ease. 

This, of course, only made her seem more authentic and endearing — she was like any of us would be in the same situation — but there is also a noticeable social awkwardness to Fern that only slowly starts to emerge in Nomadland. Her smile is a little anxious. She’s got a goofy laugh, as if she’s trying her best to be ingratiating. She feels more centered being alone than with others. And in an important scene near the end, she’s forced to meet up with her estranged sister Dolly (Melissa Smith), who gives us a perspective on Fern that enhances everything we understand about this character. Turns out, Fern has always been a bit of a nomad, a misfit who never quite fit in. Whether it’s her natural demeanor or something she conjured up beautifully for the movie, McDormand creates a person who has never been comfortable in the world. Her life with her husband was as close as she ever got. (They had no children.) And now that he’s gone, she has to wander again. It’s not the economy or the Great Recession or anything else that made her a nomad. It’s always been her.

How much of this is McDormand herself I couldn’t say. Acting is always a combination of great material, craft and those personal intangibles. But I’ve never seen her give a performance this intimate and direct. Her hair short and her face unadorned, she doesn’t hide anything. Like the actual nomads we meet in Nomadland, she’s the accumulation of all the experiences she’s had in her life, which have brought her to the point in which we now see her. 

Is that “real” or “authentic”? Does the film have something profound to say about economic inequality or the “real America”? Maybe, but I don’t much care. Most movies would try to make Fern and her friends’ stories a tragedy or benignly inspirational — they would try to impose their own meanings on lives that resist society’s judgment. It’s one of Nomadland’s greatest strengths that it has the good sense to grant Fern her one and only wish: It just lets her be.