Fern (Frances McDormand), an unemployed widow living in a ghost town so deserted its zip code has been discontinued, makes the very hard decision to pull up stakes and hit the road. In this economic climate, that’s all it takes to become a nomad: lack of opportunity + too broke to retire = living in a van. She heads to where there’s seasonal work, a large Amazon distribution centre that pays your camping fees while you ship goods to online shoppers over the holidays and then kicks them out when the shopping season’s over (a sadly real employment strategy called the CamperForce program).
This is an actual way of life for many people nearing or having achieved senior citizenship with a subpar pension and no social safety net. This is not our finest hour.
Director Chloé Zhao takes us on a quintessentially American road trip through 7 states over a four month shoot. She adapts Jessica Bruder’s book for the screen but lets stunning cinematography tell its own story, and allows real life nomads Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells to their stories from the fringes of society. Brilliant, brilliant McDormand feels like a fixture rather than a tourist in the landscape.
Zhao has an incredible aesthetic, her scenes like vintage postcards, but ultimately lets them be the backdrop to the stories lived and told by hardscrabble people. Zhao’s edits are generous, allowing the camera to linger over both the power and the pain of “having nothing in your way.”
These modern day nomads speak of rejecting the dollar, the 9-5 mentality, the conventional way of life, but between their words is a choking sense of loneliness and a sense that it is life that has rejected them, or perhaps capitalism has, or the American dream. There is solace in connecting with the earth, of living without encumbrance, but all are tied by the same tug of longing and belonging. Fern herself is an internal balance of grief and resiliency. This life isn’t one that she chose, exactly, it’s a compromise that she made, a way to go on when there was nothing left for her.
Frances McDormand has nothing left to prove. There is a quiet strength to her performance, indeed Zhao seems to have elicited nothing but, even from an amateur cast. There is strength and value in authenticity, even when the truth isn’t pretty.