Directed by Chloe Zhao, starring Frances McDormand, David Strahairn, Linda May
This is a movie about America. There are two Americas. The haves and the have nots. This about the have nots who choose a life on the open road and freedom. It is not a life I would choose but it is a fascinating portrait of those who do. They are called American Nomads.
Frances McDormand turns in another brilliant but understated performance as Fern, the strong and determined woman, who takes to the open road after she loses her job at US Gypsum, a plant where she and her husband, who has recently died, had worked for years. The plant closing in Empire, a small town in Nevada, causes the economic collapse of the town. This is the sad reality of so many small towns in America.
Fern sells her stuff and buys a van and takes to the road searching for work. She outfits the van to live in. She first takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center through the winter. Whenever I buy anything at from Amazon, I cringe a little bit thinking of the workers at the fulfilment center, although Fern seems to thrive in this environment. A co-worker invites Fern to visit a desert winter gathering in Arizona organized by Bob Wells, which provides a support system and community for fellow nomads. At the gathering, Fern meets fellow nomads and learns basic survival and self-sufficiency skills for the road.
Fern later takes other jobs down the road: an RV camp host, a worker in a beet harvest, and a worker in a fast-food restaurant. It is a tough life living at the margins. She continues to run across some of the other nomads she has met along the way as she continues her travels and they become her friends and kind of a family or tribe. She does have a chance to settle down a couple of times along the way but continues to choose a life on the road to be free and independent if, lonely.
There is not much of a dramatic story here, more of a character study and a documentary on the nomadic existence in America. Even if we can’t identify with her way of life we can empathize with her very human feelings of loneliness and her desire to be free. As Bob Wells so aptly put it, “I’ll see you down the road.”