‘Nomadland’ explores life on the road in ‘fine detail’ and ‘broad strokes’

Peter Sblendorio
New York Daily News (TNS)
Frances McDormand stars in "Nomadland." The movie premieres in theaters and on Hulu on Friday.

“Nomadland” explores new roads — and puts misconceptions in the rearview mirror.

The film, starring Frances McDormand, provides an intimate window into the roving lifestyle by showing the experiences of a community of people who live in their vans and travel the United States.

The authenticity of “Nomadland” impressed Bob Wells, a real-life nomad who plays himself in the movie.

“It’s remarkable,” Wells told the Daily News. “It captures the life extremely well, in fine detail and in broad strokes.”

McDormand portrays a fictional character, Fern, whose life is upended by her husband’s death and the 2011 closure of the U.S. Gypsum plant where she worked in Empire, Nevada.

While enduring her financial and emotional struggles, Fern attends the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering for nomads hosted by Wells, before beginning her new life driving state to state in a box van and working temporary jobs.

“If you ask any nomad why you do this, what’s important to you about it, it’s always freedom,” said Wells, whose economic situation initially caused him to adopt the lifestyle in 1995. “You are in as much control as a person can be in our time and location. You have control during the day over what you do and what you think.”

Directed and written by Chloé Zhao, the movie is out now in IMAX, and premieres Friday in standard theaters and on Hulu. It’s based on the 2017 book “Nomadland” by Jessica Bruder, who lived as a nomad for up to two months at a time during the three years she worked on the project.

“The film is very intimate and brings you close to them, and that sort of empathetic work really makes it hard to have prejudices or misconceptions just when you can get close to people like that,” Bruder told The News. “It makes it easier to imagine yourself into someone else’s life. That was my great hope for the book, and I think the film is going in that direction as well.”

The movie earned the top award last year at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, and is up for best drama motion picture at this month’s Golden Globes.

A number of real-life nomads appear in the movie and are introduced during McDormand’s character’s journey.

“Her character creates this path that we get to watch,” Bruder said. “She’s kind of the proxy for the viewer in some way, in terms of just entering in these worlds that we get to see other people, and that means often stepping back and having them tell their stories.”

Wells hopes “Nomadland” shows that “alternatives” exist beyond the way of life much of society is accustomed to, and credits the film for depicting a strong sense of community.

“Fern makes all these friends ... and you keep coming back. The bungee cord keeps pulling you together,” Wells said.

“You find solutions to all the little problems. Fern is offered, multiple times, a way out, like people need to rescue her from this life, but there’s this healing. ... The movie is all about healing of her grief. Nomadism is just part of the healing process. It’s really very moving because of that. You’re seeing healing and hope.”