"I'm not homeless," says Frances McDormand's character Fern, in Nomadland. "I'm just… houseless. Not the same thing, right?"
Its double (possibly soon triple) Oscar winning star aside, the film sweeping through awards season this year features a cast of unknown faces. The heart of Nomadland is the nomads themselves, a community of itinerant van dwellers living off grid, on the periphery of society, in the American West.
There's grandmother Linda May, who dreams of settling and creating an Earthship, and Bob Wells, the 65-year-old founder of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, the largest gathering of nomads and van dwellers in the US. And Charlene Swankie, a 78-year-old who had been living on the road for more than a decade and had no idea at first why anyone would want to make a film about her normal life.
All are playing versions of themselves; how much is real and how much is scripted it is hard to tell, as fact blends with fiction.
And then there's Frances McDormand's Fern, a widow in her 60s forced into a transient life after losing everything in the recession. She makes ends meet taking on odd jobs, including working in an Amazon warehouse, and learns basic survival and self-sufficiency skills for the road from other nomads. Her character is fictional, but encapsulates the stories of many for whom Nomadland is real life.
Made with a low budget and adapted from Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century, released in 2017, director Chloe Zhao has brought these lives, rarely explored, sensitively into the spotlight. Some have chosen this path, some have been forced into it due to changing circumstances; all have a story to tell. The invisible casualties of the Great Recession, Bruder's book explores the tens of thousands of transient older Americans "workamping" everywhere from the beet fields of North Dakota to the National Forest campgrounds of California.
In the film, set against the backdrop of the vast landscape of the West, the run-down towns, ugly factory buildings and the mundanities of life are juxtaposed with the beauty of the deserts and seemingly endless craggy terrain beyond. Visually, it is stunning, complemented by a piano score tinged with sadness and yet filled with hope. And through McDormand's sensitive performance as Fern, we see the difficulties and the uncertainties of nomadic life, but also the freedom, too.
After premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020, Nomadland went on to win the event's Golden Lion, the highest accolade. Since then, it has won numerous critics' awards, two Golden Globes and four BAFTAs, and is now a front-runner for the Oscars, for which it is up for six.
Zhao, who has suddenly found herself the toast of Hollywood, has already made history. With her BAFTA win for best director, she became only the second woman ever to win the prize, and the first woman of colour; Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman, for The Hurt Locker, in 2010.
A win in the directing category at the Oscars would mean the same.
Bruder, who hit the road in a secondhand van herself to get to know her subjects when writing the book, says the film "really honours the places and people" she met during her travels.
Zhao, who was born in China, is clearly just as passionate about her subjects. "They shared with us their dreams, their struggles and their deep sense of dignity," she said in her BAFTA acceptance speech.
"Thank you for showing us that aging is a beautiful part of life, a journey that we should all cherish and celebrate. How we treat our elders says a lot about who we are as a society, and we need to do better."
Wells, a long-time proponent of transient living, has said he hopes the film will inspire more people to consider life on the road.
"There are a few principles that nomads live by," he says. "First, things are a burden. If we all started to think things were a burden, our lives will be far better, our world would be far better. If we all started to think about generosity first, that I need other people and they need me…
"We lived nomadically for millions of years and these were the principles. I need you tomorrow to help me with the hunt, so I have to take care of you today... If we just adopted some of these… travel is good, seeing the world, making bigger thoughts other than my own little tiny circle. If we would just adopt those simple ideas, everyone's life would be better, the world would be better."
McDormand, who could be on course to win her third leading actress Oscar, following gongs for Fargo in 1997, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in 2018, has said in interviews that before Nomadland she had had thoughts of leaving acting behind and hitting the road. She learned "it's not for the faint of heart", she told the Los Angeles Times. "It is not a romantic idea. You have to plan and you have to be very confident that you can be alone."
In a post on Instagram, May said she feels proud to have been part of the project. "Jessica and Chloe have given a spotlight to those who are in the shadows," she wrote. "I hope this movie makes people feel they can open their hearts to their neighbours. Just by extending a warm smile or a hello, that could make that person's day. It could make that person in the shadows not feel invisible."
Nomadland is an intimate portrait of the nomadic community, presenting the rootless existence not just as one of struggles and sorrow but of joy and serenity, too. There is loneliness, yes, but also a real sense of belonging. And of home.
Nomadland is released on Star on Disney+ in the UK and Ireland on 30 April and will be in cinemas in the UK and Ireland from 17 May