Hulu’s Nomadland, written and directed by Chloé Zhao, follows the story of Fern, a 61-year-old widow who lives out of her van working multiple jobs on the road. Describing it as being ‘houseless’ rather than homeless, Fern (Frances McDormand) is adjusting to her new nomadic lifestyle, meeting friends who doing the same along the way.

Centered on the journey toward the American dream in trying times, the movie’s candid narrative seems like a true story, especially with the realities of COVID-19’s current impact on society. So, as the film gains some awards buzz, here’s what we know about its inspiration.

Is Nomadland a true story?

Partially. Yes, Nomadland is fictional, but it’s composed of several true stories. The film is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book of the same name, which includes elements that are inspired by real people and events.

For three years, Bruder researched and personally met the subjects of her book, a group of older men and women who were forced to hit the road working temporary jobs after the Great Depression took a financial toll on their lives. The book focuses on a woman named Linda May, but after director Zhao met her and her friend Charlene Swankie in preparation for the film, she decided to incorporate a protagonist with combined characteristics of the two, introducing Fern.

But many additional members of the cast, including Linda May and Swankie, are characters from the book and play dramatized versions of themselves in the movie. Their real-life stories of their nomadic lifestyle drive most of the script, with some fictional events thrown in the mix. For instance, aspects of the film follow Swankie as she navigates her cancer diagnosis, deciding not to receive treatment in order to continue the freedom of life on the road. She ultimately dies in the film, however, she is in fact still alive today—boasting her own performance in the film on social media.

The portrayal of their nomadic lifestyle and the incorporation of real events give this fictional movie the feel of a nonfiction story. Nomadland is in theaters and streaming on Hulu now.

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