By Cameron Kaercher
A group of people college students may not be aware of are the current day “nomads.” They are made up of a group of older Americans who cannot rely on social security benefits to survive. So, they reject the standard retirement lifestyle, buy a camper, and travel the country looking for work. Their story was captured by Jessica Bruder and published as a book in 2017, titled “Nomadland.”
The Centerpiece of the 58th New York Film Festival is the cinematic adaptation of “Nomadland.”
Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a nomad who is dealing with the loss of her husband and the repercussions of the 2008 recession, which economically impacted the town she was living in at the time. She went to college, got a degree, had a reliable job, — which it is safe to say that every student in school is hoping for — but it didn’t work out.
The town of Empire, where Fern lived and worked, was based around a gypsum mine. When it went under, it was only a matter of months before the town’s zip code would be eliminated. Fern does what every nomad does: she gets in her camper and finds work. She farms beets, cleans public bathrooms and scans barcodes for an Amazon warehouse. The character of Fern is purely fictional and comes from writer-director Chloé Zhao’s screenplay, but the world around her mixes documentary with fiction.
The supporting cast of “Nomadland” is made up of actual nomads with Linda May, Bob Wells and Swankie playing themselves. Fern meets them at trailer parks and listens to them tell their stories. They give tours of their personalized vans and show pictures of their children to each other, they listen to seminars on how to dispose of their waste and what bucket to use, and they spend the nights singing songs around the campfire. These intimate, well-observed moments are true to the world Bruder wrote about in her book.
McDormand’s character and performance justify the film’s existence, rather than just being a documentary. Her adjustment to living this life and coping with her loss is raw, human, and not glamorous in the slightest. She disappears into the character and her cartoonish “you betcha” accent from “Fargo,” feels light years away from this grounded performance.
In a discussion with NYFF director Eugene Hernandez, Chloe Zhao explained that in her search for a composer for the film’s soundtrack, she literally googled “beautiful classical music inspired by nature.” Thankfully, she found Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi who gave her exactly that. The strings spiritually weave throughout the story and soar at the sunsets, creating a gorgeous soundscape.
“Nomadland” could function as a great double feature with Kelly Reichert’s “First Cow.” Both films capture the American west as a place of opportunity; while the former is set against the failings of capitalism, the latter shows capitalism first blossoming in America.
The economy has failed Fern and every other nomad that drives hundreds of miles for the opportunity to clean bathrooms to survive.
“Nomadland” will definitely be part of the awards season this year. It won the top prizes at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.
It deserves the Academy’s attention, and it deserves yours as well.