Granger on Film: 'Nomadland' a timely look at an unaffordable America

Following screenings at the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals, and a special-event presentation from Telluride in Los Angeles, the Frances McDormand-led drama "Nomadland" has garnered significant awards buzz. (Searchlight Pictures/TNS)

Following screenings at the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals, and a special-event presentation from Telluride in Los Angeles, the Frances McDormand-led drama "Nomadland" has garnered significant awards buzz. (Searchlight Pictures/TNS)

Searchlight Pictures / TNS

Combining essential elements of “Grapes of Wrath” and “No Country For Old Men,” Chloe Zhao paints a subtle portrait of a resilient woman determined to survive despite devastating loss in the migrant drama “Nomadland.”

Widowed, 61 year-old Fern (Frances McDormand) lost everything in the 2008 financial collapse, including her home and her job in now-deserted Empire, Nevada. So she sets out alone across the American West in her ramshackle Ford Econoline van, joining a caravan of modern-day nomads, a rag-tag community, squatting in RV parks.

Cryptic, soft-spoken Fern has no savings, job or health plan, yet she’s fiercely defiant when asked if she’s homeless, bristling: “I’m houseless, not homeless. My home is my van.”

A former English teacher, Fern loves poetry, reciting Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18.” Eschewing pity, she is smart, courageous and totally self-reliant, even if that means using a plastic bucket as a portable toilet

Adapted as a non-judgmental character study by director Chloe Zhao from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” and collaborating with cinematographer/production designer Joshua James Richards, it authentically profiles with meandering realism not only Fern but also others who are stoically facing tremendous challenges.

Rugged, real-life nomads Linda May and Charlene Swankie guide Fern to YouTube guru Bob Wells, who discusses the perilous practicalities of van-living in his Rubber Stamp Rendezvous. And Fern forms a tenuous relationship with a fellow traveler (David Strathairn).

Chloe Zhao’s first two films — “Songs My Brother Taught Me” (2015) and “The Rider” (2018) — are glimpses of contemporary America from the perspective of a woman born in China and raised in England.

Filming in seven states during four months, Frances McDormand actually worked at harvesting beets and packaging Amazon orders with the CamperForce program. Apparently she blended so well into the nomadic community that a Target store offered her a job application.

As millions more Americans are facing poverty and food banks are overextended, it’s a sad fact that for many, a stable existence has simply become unaffordable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Fox Searchlight’s “Nomadland” is a timely 10. As nomads say: “I’ll see you down the road…”

Susan Granger has been an on-air television and radio commentator and entertainment critic for more than 25 years. Raised in Hollywood, Granger appeared as a child actress in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, and Lassie. She currently resides in Westport.