Tropic Sprockets / Nomadland

By Ian Brockway

Chloe Zhao (The Rider) directs this understated yet heartfelt portrait based on the nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. The story is brisk and poignant, full of the majestic landscape of the American Mountain West. Fern (Frances McDormand) is a factory worker and widow who has recently lost her employment.

She is working at Amazon, boxing orders in the shipping department but she is over-worked and morose. Moreover, she is haunted by memories of her late husband. At the Amazon Warehouse, Fern meets Linda (played by real life nomad Linda Mae) who tells her about Bob Wells, the actual lifestyle guru who preaches the way of life within an RV, going from place to place without roots or attachments, while connecting with the natural world.

Fern is hooked.

In her van, Fern journeys to The Badlands in South Dakota. Along the way, she meets the mindful and quiet David (David Strathairn) and the mystical Swankie (who plays a version of herself).

Fern is plunged into the world of nomads, loose bands of travelers who live by their wits and never stay in one place.

As Fern observes each scene, she is torn between mainstream living and the experience of road travel. Obsessed by the loss of her husband to cancer, she does not fit in to either category, be it the traveling life or one of domesticity. She is an existential voyeur, frequently watching events from afar, either from a stairway or from behind a door. Again and again, family and friends ask her to join society and the company of others. Fern refuses. In many ways she is a living camera, only recording events as she sees them, solitary and alone.

The film is restrained and naturalistic with earthy locales, reminiscent of the gritty films of Debra Granek and Kelly Reichardt.

The film treats travelers as actual empathetic beings with wishes and fears, not as faceless entities or victims. This is one of the few films that portray those without a house as they undoubtedly are, with vibrance and humor, as well as charm.

Frances McDormand gives one of her best performances here. The actor is watchful and pained, but also childlike in her awareness of the natural environment and its possibilities of experience.

“Nomadland” is another solid creation from director Chloe Zhao, a slice of life film, entertaining and introspective.

Write Ian at ianfree11@yahoo.com