Producers: Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey and Chloë Zhao   Director: Chloë Zhao   Screenplay: Chloë Zhao   Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Derek Endres, Melissa Smith, James R. Taylor Jr. and Emily Jade Foley   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: B

The 2017 book by Jessica Bruder on which writer-director Chloë Zhao based this film is a work of non-fiction, with the subtitle “Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.”  The adaptation, however, is not a documentary; it’s a hybrid.  Many of those in the supporting cast are people playing versions of themselves, but the lead role is taken by a bona fide star—Frances McDormand—and she’s seconded by another, David Strathairn. 

Still, the approach they and Zhao take hardly glosses over the harshness of the material, despite visuals from Joshua James Richards, doubling as production designer and cinematographer, that are pictorially rich, indeed often positively painterly.

Appearing in many of the most beautiful compositions against magnificent western landscapes is McDormand as Fern, whose back story echoes that of many of the subjects in Bruder’s book.  She and her husband lived in Empire, Nevada, a US Gypsum company town.  But the business closed in 2011, her husband died, and Fern couldn’t keep their house.  She now lives in an old RV she dubs Vanguard and, since work is unavailable locally, goes on the road, taking temporary jobs wherever she can find them.

But though her life has become solitary, she is not alone in her experience.  She has joined a community of older Americans who have become nomads as the result of economic necessity.  They have banded together in a kind of occasional solidarity, meeting from time to time to share suggestions about how to survive and to offer each other help and support.  It’s at such gatherings that she meets Bob Wells, who’s been instrumental in forming this ad hoc association, as well as Linda and Swankie, two of the transients who play versions of themselves in the film, and Dave, played with gentle understatement by Strathairn.        

“Nomadland” follows Fern as she struggles to learn the practical rules demanded by this sort of life, lessons she has to be taught—sometimes sternly—by those who have been at it longer than she.

But it’s not an instructional manual; it’s a portrait of a woman who represents an extreme idea of freedom in a society governed by social and economic norms that some people simply choose to ignore.  When Fern is compelled by circumstances to meet with her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith), for example, it’s said that she left home as soon as she could, never looking back.  And though she connects with Dave from time to time, when he’s contacted by the son he’s not seen for years and invited to visit his family, he not only accepts the invitation but decides to stay.  Fern goes to visit him, but given the opportunity to remain with Dave and his family, she instead leaves for the road again.  Despite the difficulties she has to overcome, it’s the life she prefers, though she does go back to Empire to survey the ruins of the plant and her deserted house. 

Fern’s encounters with others are often touching.  That’s true not only of her meetings with Dave, but with Swankie, who at one point movingly reveals that she’s terminally ill but still filled with thanks for the wonders she’s seen on her travels, and with a young man she shares her love of poetry with.  (She was once, we learn, a substitute teacher, and presumably could be again if she chose.) 

But Fern’s solitude dominates the film as something not to be pitied but respected, even admired for her feisty refusal to be cowed by circumstances or the expectations of others. Few actors can play determination as McDormand does—with unadorned stoicism—and by the close she has come to resemble those flinty, plain-spoken pioneer women familiar from classic westerns, or the men, like Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers,” who are fated to be alone.

“Nomadland” meanders, just as Fern does, and Zhao’s editing can seem halting, even dilatory at times. Ludovico Einaudi’s score adds to the meditative mood.  Zhao’s blend of reality and poetry is an aesthetic that will move some, while boring others, but in this case she employs it to paint an empathetic portrait of itinerant Americans who, though confronted by tough economic times, refuse to give up or give in.