‘Nomadland’: Moving on with America’s homeless van dwellers
Frances McDormand in Nomadland. | Fox Searchlight

Fern stands forlorn, surveying the desert before her. She is a small figure looking out over the beautiful, austere, infinite landscape. The desert is her own world writ large.

She navigates that world in “Vanguard,” her turtle shell van remodeled to carry her few possessions on her back. She drifts toward temporary jobs as low-skill assembler and cleaner of other people’s messes at Amazon, Wall Drugs, and the Park Service, which support her and her road friends like Swankie, Linda May, and Dave (David Strathairn). They earn crumbs off the table, not really even small bites from the apple.

Her husband Bo has died, leaving her only with memories. The Nevada gypsum mine where he worked shut down, the company town they lived in abandoned to the ghosts of no longer profitable extraction. These people’s lives had been mined of value.

On the margin, Fern can almost control her world. She’s a shoplifter at someone else’s market. With opportunities to settle down with her friend Dave or her sister, Fern quickly slams the door. Is it the promise of comfort or the fear of personal danger? Is she still grieving for Bo, with whom she stayed for too long before he left her in death?

It would be easy to see Fern as road romantic or even heir to pioneer individualism. But the sadness that suffuses her character speaks to so many others left behind. There is nothing romantic about her grinding poverty, the uncertainty of her life. These are not rebels creating a new lifestyle. They are survivors hanging on painfully, waiting for the inevitable.

In Nomadland, Frances McDormand, the pre-eminent actor of our generation, has sketched a complex, but all too familiar character at the edge of society. Director Chloe Zhao teases out of McDormand’s famous prickliness the hidden injuries of class. Her sadness is always a degree away from anger.

Zhao and McDormand have created for us a critical portrait of the American character. Fern’s preoccupation with self-reliance, her individualism, thwarts the very social interactions that would give her a fuller, more meaningful life. Instead of trying to change the world around her, she nibbles at the edges just enough to survive.

The strongest, most hopeful scenes are those involving the band of roadies, played by actual van dwellers, led by Bob Wells. Wells founded Rubber Tramp Rendezvous an annual gathering of van dwellers in Quartzite, Arizona. Nomadland warmly depicts this gathering.

Unfortunately, the film does not lavish such time on the Homes on Wheels Alliance, also founded by Wells, a non-profit group that provides assistance with the transition to safe, secure homes and strives to impact the homeless problem.

Still, thanks to the surpassing work of McDormand and Zhao we have a well crafted look at how the richest nation in the world fails a substantial segment of its population.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.