The film Nomadland is based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. As stated in the opening screen, it is based on the 2011 closing of a gypsum mine and sheetrock plant in Empire, Nevada. Fern (Frances McDormand), had long lived in Empire with her husband, who had worked for the company. After he died, she stayed on in Empire. But Empire was a company town, and she lost her company housing. Homeless (or, as she prefers to put it, "houseless") she moves into her van and gets a seasonal job at Amazon. When that ends, she follows a friend to a "nomad" gathering in Arizona, where she meets and makes friends with other "nomads," whom she meets on and off as she travels from odd job to odd job. Along the way she meets David (David Strathairn), who takes a liking to her and eventually settles down with his son's family and invites her to visit, hoping she will stay. She does visit, but she doesn't stay. The others she meets are not professional actors, but people who are actually living this nomadic kind of life, which gives the film a quasi-documentary character.
Through these encounters and Fern's experiences in this rare film about actual poor people, we learn about their struggles, limited options, and how they have coped. At one point, Fern visits her sister, who lives a comfortable suburban life, to borrow some money. There is genuine family affection between them, and Fern could stay there if she wished, but somehow she can't. Likewise, she could have opted for a more stable life with David and his family, but again somehow she can't. On the other hand, the concluding sequence of her return visit to Empire highlights how she valued her perviously stable life with her husband. We get glimpses of that very different life from the fact that she had been a substitute teacher in the past and can as occasion warrants quote Shakespeare and on occasion recite a sonnet from memory to a fellow nomad. We also get the sense that she still sees some value in what was lost, as when she advises David to go home and be a grandfather and when she shows concern for a young nomad, asking. him if his parents are worried about him.
The film is set against the traumatic background of the Great Recession and the hollowing out of so much of working-class America. Its context is ostensibly tragic. But any potential political challenge to the status quo is muted, indeed drained away. (For one brief moment, Fern hints at a political critique in conversation with her brother-in-law, but that is quickly abandoned and attention shifted to her "eccentricity.") Like the magnificent scenery that backgrounds Fern's travels, the story has another dimension which reflects the long-standing, deeply ingrained American duality of stability and home, on the one hand, and solitary movement and pioneering adventure, on the other. So, while the characters are presented as mainly nomads by economic necessity, often touched by personal tragedies in their lives and subsisting on seasonal work at awful jobs, they are also somewhat free-spirited individuals, modern pioneers. They crave community enough to seek and find it in one another, but embrace an almost libertarian lifestyle, that reflects, in their own personal uprootedness, the kind of destructive uprooting caused by the neo-liberal economics that uprooted Fern's life in the first place. Fern's encounters with her sister and David highlight how much she herself personally embodies this ambivalent duality.