Nomadland is a 2020 American drama film based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. It won the Academy Awards prize for best picture in 2021. The film is written, edited, produced, and directed by Chloé Zhao, awarded the Oscar for best director in 2021, and stars Frances McDormand (who is also a producer on the film) as a vandwelling working nomad who leaves her hometown after her husband dies and the sole industry closes down, to be “houseless” and travel around the United States. David Strathairn also stars in a supporting role. A number of real-life nomads appear as fictionalized versions of themselves, including Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells.
Nomadland premiered on September 11, 2020, at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion. It also won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It had a one-week streaming limited release on December 4, 2020, and was distributed by Searchlight Pictures in selected IMAX theaters in the United States on January 29, 2021, and simultaneously in theaters, and streaming digitally on Hulu, on February 19, 2021.
The film was praised for its direction, screenplay, editing, cinematography, and performances, especially of McDormand. It was the third-highest rated film of 2020 on Metacritic, which found it to be the most frequently ranked by critics and publications as one of the best films of the year. At the 93rd Academy Awards, it won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for McDormand, from a total of six nominations; Zhao became the first woman of color to win Best Director, while McDormand became the first person to win Academy Awards as both producer and performer for the same film. It also won Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director at the 78th Golden Globe Awards,[a] four awards including Best Film at the 74th British Academy Film Awards, and four awards including Best Film at the 36th Independent Spirit Awards.
In 2011, Fern loses her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shuts down; she had worked there for years along with her husband, who recently died. Fern decides to sell most of her belongings and purchases a van to live in and travel the country searching for work. She takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center through the winter.
Linda, a friend and co-worker, invites Fern to visit a desert rendezvous in Arizona organized by Bob Wells, which provides a support system and community for fellow nomads. Fern initially declines but changes her mind as the weather turns cold, and she struggles to find work in the area. There, Fern meets fellow nomads and learns basic survival and self-sufficiency skills for the road.
When Fern’s van blows a tire, she visits the van of a nearby nomad named Swankie to ask for a ride into town to buy a spare. Swankie chastises Fern for not being prepared and invites her to learn more road survival skills; they become good friends. Swankie tells Fern about her cancer diagnosis and shortened life expectancy and her plan to make good memories on the road rather than waste away in a hospital. They eventually part ways.
Fern later takes a job as a camp host at the Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park, where she runs into Dave, another nomad she met and danced with back at the desert community. He is working temporarily at Badlands National Park, but when he falls ill with diverticulitis, Fern visits him at the hospital where he has had emergency surgery. They later take restaurant jobs at Wall Drug in South Dakota. One night Dave’s son visits the restaurant looking for him, telling him that his wife is pregnant and asking him to meet his grandchild. He is hesitant, but Fern encourages him to go. Dave suggests that she come with him, but she declines.
Fern takes a new job at a sugar beet processing plant, but her van breaks down, and she cannot afford the repairs. Unable to borrow money, she visits her sister’s family at their home in California. Her sister lends her the money. She questions why Fern was never around in their lives and why Fern stayed in Empire after her husband died, but she tells Fern she is brave to be so independent. Fern later visits Dave and his son’s family, learning that Dave has decided to stay with them long-term. He admits feelings for her and invites her to stay with him permanently in a guest house, but she decides to leave after only a few days, heading to the ocean.
Fern returns to her seasonal Amazon job and later revisits the Arizona rendezvous. There she learns that Swankie has died, and she and the other nomads pay tribute to her life. Fern opens up to Bob about her loving relationship with her late husband, and he shares the story of his son’s suicide. Bob espouses the view that goodbyes are not final in the nomad community as its members always promise to see each other again “down the road.”
Sometime later, Fern returns to the nearly abandoned town of Empire to dispose of the belongings she has been keeping in a storage unit. She visits the factory and the home she shared with her husband before returning to the road again.
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