It’s the best drama film of the year, according to the Golden Globes, and it was made right on our doorstep. Nomadland features real people in Quartzsite, Arizona among other places, including one last, brief on-screen stint for Quartzsite’s Paul Winer.
Nomadland – directed, written and edited by Chloé Zhao – is the story of a woman who sets off to live in a van after the death of her husband, traveling around the western United States and getting short-term work in various places as she goes. Despite having good-faith offers from her sister (and, later, a fellow nomad called David) to settle into domestic life with them, Fern either can’t or won’t do it, opting instead for the raw peaks and valleys of life on the road.
And so, Fern becomes one of the many thousands with homes on wheels that can be seen congregating in the desert around the town of Quartzsite and elsewhere each winter, most of them older Americans who either by choice or by necessity are living the nomad life, often solo. Public lands, campsite showers, electric hookups, temp work, destinations and meetups become features of their lives, and we see the warmth of campfire communities alleviating the loneliness of the road in places like Quartzsite.
The real people in the film are playing versions of themselves. When they are seen stepping into their trailers, RVs or vans, those are their real homes. When they speak, it’s in their own cadences conveying their real philosophies on life. The film depicts their nomadic friendships in natural conditions with natural lighting, and the sometimes harsh situations they endure are presented unflinchingly by Zhao and her crew. Frances MacDormand is perfect for the role, blending so seamlessly into the landscape of other travelers and the American West that it seems almost impossible to imagine another actor pulling it off.
It’s a bleak film, too, with economic and social realities hanging over it. Although many of the nomads would say they’re choosing the lifestyle for its richness, variety, social life, natural beauty and exploration, the fact remains that many of them may not be doing it – or at least doing it in the way they are – if not for the Great Recession or for suffering a health-related bankruptcy or, in Fern’s case, because of the loss of her factory job.
Still, there are moments of levity, there is that incredible natural beauty and, as always, the film’s largest concentrations of warmth are to be found in human connectedness. One of Quartzsite’s best-known residents, the ‘naked bookseller’ Paul Winer, makes an appearance at one point, singing philosophically over his bluesy piano riffs with more clothes on than usual. The movie was filmed in late 2018, just months before Winer passed away after an illness, so it was a special treat to see him on the big screen, making a mark even after he’s gone.
If you don’t mind a slow, meandering story, and you don’t recoil from seeing real life portrayed without a sugarcoating, you may find that Nomadland stays with you as a viewer, and you may pass through Quartzsite more thoughtfully afterward than if you’d never watched.
Nomadland can be seen in theaters or streaming digitally on Hulu.