Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland. (Photo: Searchlight Pictures, via Twitter)

One of the persistent plot lines of rural existence is the notion of the “dying town.” If you grew up in a rural place or have spent extended time in one, you’ve likely heard the lament somewhere. The new film Nomadland, released to theaters and streaming last week, dives straight into this narrative. The film opens with on-screen text telling us not of a dying town, but a well and truly dead one, its population and even its zip code passed on. From the first frame to the last, we’re then left to reckon with what’s on the other side of this oft invoked yet unfamiliar frontier.

Both the town itself and the tale that follows are based on real events, from a book of the same name written by journalist Jessica Bruder. But what’s most remarkable about Nomadland is that with the exception of its two lead actors, Francis McDormand playing protagonist Fern and David Strathairn playing her friend David, the entire main cast is made up of real people who have occupied the real-life situations that inspired the film.

To be clear, the film is decidedly a piece of dramatic filmmaking; it is not a documentary. This unique casting arrangement, bringing to mind the tradition of Italian neorealism, provides much of the film’s allure. Powered by a cast of “regular people” who have lived the story the film is trying to tell, it feels heartfelt, grounded, and lived-in. Yet it is at once down-to-earth and mythic. The latter quality largely comes through in the landscapes that provide the story’s backdrop, framed beautifully by director Chloé Zhao and her filmmaking team.

Vast expanses and sweeping vistas, national parks and tourist towns, winding roads and roadside attractions, are some of the rural-centric sights on offer. Per the title, the film concerns Fern’s embrace of a nomadic lifestyle, and the community and sub-culture that exist around it. Following the loss of her town and much else with it, she’s living in her van. She drives across the country, moving from one gig or gathering to the next, following the weather and the seasons, and the various momentary opportunities that correspond with them.

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The reporting that powered Bruder’s book looked at the aftermath of the Great Recession through the eyes of transient older Americans facing major economic headwinds. In that sense, there is a dark, even dystopic edge to the film. But it’s not depressing or overly grim.

The challenges of Fern’s journey are frequent and formidable. We see the realities of doing difficult, often thankless work, of finding suitable places to park overnight, of fixing flat tires or keeping up with unexpected repair bills, or of simply staying warm and surviving another day.

But there is levity and joy here too, particularly when the nomads gather. They speak with wisdom and playfulness. They take deep pride in bonds of community and connectedness with nature. They exhibit resourcefulness and self-reliance, hard won on the road. This comes back to the importance of the film’s casting and the special power it grants. These characters may lack houses, retirement accounts, stable careers, or other boons of modern life. But they still have agency. They’ve chosen their lives as nomads, and while they may be subject to the whims of a 21st Century American economy that is uncaring, unequal, and unfair, they have taken back some control over their own stories, in life and here on the screen.

And these stories matter. They connect to the deep, enduring questions of life. What is the meaning of our existence? What happens after the people and places we love pass on? What happens after we do? At a basic level, to be transient, to be a nomad, is to occupy the places and moments in between, to be ever navigating from one entity to another. Nomadland is ultimately a film about loss and grief, and the in-between spaces it commands offer such rich ground to explore and work through these themes.

You could call it a metaphor for purgatory. You could say it has a certain elegiac quality – something rural audiences have become well attuned to. You might find it’s the perfectly timed film for this moment, as we all wait for the better world we can make on the other side of this pandemic. In any case, Nomadland remains resolute and quietly triumphant. Most people haven’t had to walk the roads the subjects of this story do, left without an address, a home, or a promise of another day. But all of us one day will. In the meantime, Nomadland is an instructive and profound cinematic experience, providing audiences the opportunity to take some steps in those shoes.

Nomadland is now playing in theaters and streaming on Hulu. On Sunday, February 28, the film won Golden Globes for Best Director: Motion Picture and Best Motion Picture (Drama) from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA).

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