An ominous statement about the town of Empire, Nevada, opens the film, “Nomadland.”
It says the town lived because of the U.S. gypsum plant. The plant closed and, within a couple of years, the town’s ZIP code was discontinued.
We then meet Fern (Frances McDormand). She is at her storage unit, picking out things to take. Loading them into an old Ford van, she leaves.
It is Christmas. As she drives, Fern sings a Christmas carol.
She arrives at an RV site and tells the clerk she is there for Amazon. Then, we see her working in the warehouse.
She meets people there, especially Linda May (real name). Linda becomes Fern’s friend and mentor in this new life of being a nomad. Fern joins a culture of people who have no fixed address.
She bristles at the description of being homeless, telling someone she is not homeless, just houseless. The road is her home.
As the story progresses, we see Fern arrive at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR). This is a real life gathering of nomads hosted by Bob Wells (also his real name).
Bob puts on this gathering to help those who are living this life find ways to make it from day to day.
As Fern gains confidence being at RTR, she starts to express herself to those there. Relationships are forged. Community is found.
Fern is a keep-to-herself person, but she finds this community as something needed in her life.
One of the friends she finds is Swankie (Charlene Swankie). When a tire goes down on Fern’s van, she turns to Swankie for help. As time passes, Swankie tells Fern that she was diagnosed with brain cancer.
The thought of spending any more days in the hospital was one she could not stand. Therefore, she is going to spend her days seeing the beauty around her. In time, Swankie leaves Fern to drive to Alaska for one last journey.
Bob tells Fern his reason for doing what he does. Speaking about the death of his eldest son, Bob says he didn’t know why he was allowed to remain. He decided his reason for being was tied to helping others who are nomads.
There is a philosophy, better still, a spirituality, to Bob. He speaks of the people he has met on the road – how he never gives a final good-bye to anyone but tells them that he will see them down the road.
Fern discusses the death of her husband, how she tried to stay in Empire after his death and the death of the town. But she had to leave.
She speaks of her continuing to live in Empire after her husband’s death. Staying there allowed him to continue to exist.
Her father told her that what is remembered lives. She realized she might have spent too much time remembering.
“Nomadland” won best picture at this year’s Oscars. It has won several other awards as well.
Written and directed by Chloe Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker, it is as American a story as one can find – a mirror opposite of the American Dream.
It is an American Dream unlike what we have been told is the correct version. For the characters in the film, the dream of America is the road to another place to visit and explore.
As I watched this movie and thought about it, I could not help but think of all these people out on the road. People that live day to day, many living with pain and carrying deep scars that life imposed upon them.
I wondered, “Where is the church?”
As the church continues to lose its credibility, it is a story like this one that should be calling to us.
How do we find ways to minister to people who are on the road continuously but still need love and help when facing the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune?
There is something to be said today about how we emerge from the season of COVID-19.
Will we cling to our past ways of being? Or will we move out into the highways and hedges of our land to meet people where they are? Can we find ways to let the love of Jesus come through us to those that wander?
For not all that wander are lost. They are just looking for their place.
MPAA Rating: R for some nudity
Writer and director: Chloe Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand (Fern), Linda May (Linda), Bob Wells (Bob), Charlene Swankie (Swankie), David Strathairn (Dave)
The movie’s website is here.