Fern, played by Frances McDormand, is at loose ends. Her husband died and the company where they had both worked for decades shut down the mine they worked in. Worse, their tiny town of Empire was wholly a company town, and when the mine shut down, the town pretty much did, too, with no jobs left in the remote area of Nevada (this is all real-life true and happened in 2011). Fern has lost her job, her husband, and her town, and can not find a job of any kind locally. So, she outfits an old van for camping/living and sets off on the road. She finds seasonal jobs along the way--working in Amazon distribution centers, helping with harvest at a beet farm, working in National Parks--but the biggest surprise to her is the community she finds on the road. She's not the only one living out of her van and traveling from place to place, finding work where she can; an entire community of people, most of them older like her, is doing the same. She makes friends, and it's hard to say goodbye at the end of a stay, but then she realizes that they will see each other again at the next place or the next. She particularly bonds with a woman named Swankie who has lived this life for years and shows Fern the ropes, and with a man named Dave, played by David Strathairn. She runs into Dave for the second or third time when they are both working summer jobs at Badlands National Park, and then they both get jobs at nearby Wall Drug when the season is over. The two of them connect but a series of events leads them each to make some decisions about their lives.
While this movie begins with the reality of the economic devastation of the Great Recession and is about people living in poverty, it is a thoughtful, quiet film with lots of joy. The nomads themselves find joy in simple, everyday moments, like community campfires, helping each other, and dancing. The story is not only based on real-life people who live this way, but all of the actors in the film, except McDormand and Strathairn, are the real people living this life, playing themselves in the film. McDormand has also talked about other ways that she brought realism to her role, like including some of her own treasured items and photos in the van. Here's a great article from PBS about the real-world nomads, if you are interested in the background.
Nomadland is also a road trip movie, which we especially loved. We used to take 3-week-long road trips every summer with our sons, towing our own small camper, cross-country, and in the film, Fern visits places that we've been to and loved. We have camped--many times--in the exact campground at Badlands National Park where Fern works and visited Wall Drug many times as well. The familiar sights, especially after 18 months with no travel at all, were a wonderful balm for us. True, Fern's life (or that of any of the nomads) isn't easy, but they are kind and upbeat and making the best of things. Many of them now enjoy their lives of freedom and wouldn't want things any other way. We absolutely loved this gentle, thoughtful, joyful movie about an invisible segment of society. It deserves those awards it's winning!
We watched Nomadland on Hulu. It is also playing in theaters, where they are open.