Basking in its recent success at the Golden Globes, winning both the category of Best Motion Picture – Drama and of Best Director – Motion Picture, Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao, 2021) presents a collage of portraits that make up a slice of an older American working class after the Great Recession held together by a single story. Blending an observational documentary-like approach to a subject encased within a dramatic plot, Chloé Zhao creates an experience that aims to uphold the integrity of an important community that brings us all to question how we aim to get the most out of our life, regardless of our age.
Nomadland begins with Fern (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged widow who is forced to leave her deceased husband’s company housing and decides to move into her van. Based on the nonfiction book with the same title by journalist Jessica Bruder, the story follows Fern as she searches for seasonal jobs around the country to sustain her lifestyle and her will to work. At the start of her journey during the holiday season, Fern begins working at an Amazon warehouse where she meets Linda May (as herself). We follow the two of them into the warehouse, and in a traditional observational fashion, we watch as the workers all interact with each other on and off duty, getting little nuances showing a spark of each person we get to see on screen. Seeing that Fern is new to living on the road, Linda May introduces her to the nomad lifestyle and community, led by Bob Wells (as himself), and invites her to their meetings where Fern enters the gateway of transient life.
While the film gets us to connect with Fern as our one stable character from the film’s beginning to its end, Nomadland doesn’t attempt to spend too much attention to providing us more of her own story. Rather, we get to piece together a broader idea of the larger nomad community through the people she meets. With a cast composed of mostly nonprofessional actors aside from McDormand and David Strathairn who plays Dave, Fern’s friend slash subtle admirer, Nomadland brings us into the real lives of people who are leaving conventional society to make the most of their life on Earth. Of the people we encounter, Fern spends a lot of time with Swanky (as herself) who candidly reveals to her that she is dying of terminal cancer and is taking to the open road rather than a hospital bed. We get little glimpses of other people’s testimonies of how they found themselves on the road. Some are escaping traumatic losses while others are trying to make sense of their own existence, finding family in community and comfort in solitude. While many of these glimpses are short, some even left to a single line of dialogue, they bring us into an intimate space of exchange as we listen to these people share their stories and together they weave into an emotional portrait of nomadland and its people.
It’s important to note the autonomous nature of Fern’s character in establishing the existential intentionality to the nomad experience and the relationship between a dweller and her home. The relationship between Fern and her van is the strongest among the other relationships we see her engage with. Throughout the entire plot, it is very rare that Fern needs to rely on anyone for anything. She refuses to take a friend up on helping her find a place to live, emphasizing that she is not homeless but rather houseless, insists on sleeping in her van in the freezing cold, and refuses to move in with her sister and her husband even after her sister expresses that she feels abandoned by her sister. This autonomy within Fern is both explicitly visually and subtextually expressed, tightening not only the bond between Fern and her van, her home, but also the newfound connection she feels to the new life she lives for herself.
As we come around the anniversary of our national lockdown in response to the formal declaration of the American outbreak of COVID-19, we acknowledge how we’ve adapted to an altered way of living over the last year. Beyond that, however, many of us have been confronted with the inevitability of being left alone with our thoughts and feelings. We replay and self-assess our actions and inactions over time, only to become frighteningly more aware of how we exist in our shared world. With the digital release of Nomadland on Hulu, viewers everywhere are able to tune into an hour and fifty minutes to pause and wonder how to make the most out of this life for themselves. With a tone of regret, Fern expresses that she feels like she “spent too much of [her] life just remembering” instead of living, and now is her time to take on this new chapter of her life. While we continue to adapt to new ways of living due to forces out of our control, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the life we have in front of us now by constantly turning our head around to see all the experience that stayed behind.