Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in the film “Nomadland.” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Writer Richard Farina once wrote, “I’ve been down so long, it’s beginning to look like up to me.”

Those words could well be the unsung anthem of the wandering Americans of Chloe Zhao’s ambitious, new film “Nomadland,” a caravan of souls, sipping at the water of hope and courageously searching each day for one more reason to stay alive.

Zhao’s brave new film is based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book about a bevy of nomads in their trucks, trailers and bikes floating toward each day’s sunrises toward each new tomorrow.

Each of them seem to have the basic tools for a permanent picnic, but with meager Social Security checks of $530, framed photographs of the past, a collection of pots, pans, dinnerware and silver they got as wedding presents when they, and the world, were young.

We are given a scruffy protagonist, Fern (Frances McDormand) a stoic-unheroic pilgrim who is about to abandon her last home of Empire, Nevada, because, it abandoned her and the other American victims by shutting down the gypsum mines and the one school where Fern was a part-time substitute teacher.

On this day, filmed in symbolic blue gray winter light, Empire has lost its zip code, erasing any evidence that it ever existed.


Fern, a widow now and without a company-owned house, chops down her hair, packs up her van and hits the road.

The belongings and fittings of her time-worn van would take a day to list. It’s a collection of the newly gone.

Fern’s journey is a painful scrapbook that will include trailer parks, peeing squats by the side of roads where cars never pass, and a couple of temp jobs, one in an Amazon distribution center with a so called “Camperforce” that daily endures the cold winds of corporate indifference. It’s a fluorescent bathed gulag, a Chernobyl without the charm.

We spend this, and much of the film’s two hours, meeting Zhao’s parade of cheerful rolling stones, as they play guitars and sing old songs, concoct potluck meals and when the sun rises, pour the cold coffee on the campfires and roll on.

Fern ambles among these folks like a new-age John Steinbeck.

She listens and nods, seemingly cataloging their stories for her own “Grapes of Wrath.” I left her at the end, however, not betting much cash on that notion.


Then, the always reliable David Strathairn appears by firelight one night, and we pluck a little hope from the ashes that they will rescue one another and begin again in his tiny home on the desert.

Zhao’s bleak story, remarkably like “The Grapes of Wrath,” is beautifully filmed, full of brutal honesty and heart.

And of course, there is Ms. McDormand, an astonishing talent, who always adds extra honesty, both testy and raw.

McDormand unlike Meryl Streep, another great actor, does not have a “Mamma Mia” in her.

Then again … stay tuned.

“Nomadland” streams on Hulu.

J.P. Devine of Waterville is a former stage and screen actor.

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