In Nomadland, Writer/Director/Producer/Editor Chloé Zhao showcases a lifestyle that is utterly unique, yet somehow feels quintessentially American. Based on the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by journalist Jessica Bruder, the film follows a scattered community of people – mostly seniors – who have no permanent place to call home, but don’t consider themselves homeless. Travelling across the country in vans and RVs, working seasonal jobs, and forming makeshift communities whenever they meet, these modern American nomads come from all walks of life. Some grew disillusioned by their soulless corporate jobs, others seek new meaning after hitting rock bottom. What they all have in common is a simple desire to live their best lives outside the traditional capitalist search for money and comfort. For those who hear freedom’s call on the open road, it can be a life of great reward, but It’s certainly not the life for everyone, and comes with more than its fair share of challenges.
Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a woman who lost her husband, and also lost her job when the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada closed down. She sells most of her belongings to buy a van – aptly named Vanguard – which she outfits as her new mobile home. It may not seem like much, but Fern has put considerable time into outfitting it with everything she needs to live. There’s the obligatory mattress in the back, drawers for storage, and a makeshift retractable counter constructed out of her husband’s old fishing box. She even figures out the bathroom situation after attending an outdoor lecture by one of her fellow travelers entitled “How to Take Care of Your Shit.” (Spoiler Alert: a bucket.) Equipped for her new life as a nomad, she sets out in search of whatever survival jobs she can get. She slogs through the Christmas rush at an Amazon fulfillment center, heads down to Nebraska for the annual beet harvest, fries up some donuts at a popular roadside attraction in South Dakota. No job is beneath her if it pays well enough to subsidize her meager existence.
Of course, living in a van isn’t all wine, roses, and shitting in a bucket. Even van trouble like a flat tire can be a major setback when that van happens to be your only home, your only place to sleep, and your only mode of conveyance to your next paycheck. Perhaps even more daunting these practical challenges is the endless stream of judgement and pity that one must endure when dealing with indoor folk. Friends say they’re worried about you and offer you places to stay. Gas station managers say it’s fine to sleep in their parking lot, but encourage you to consider the church down the road so as to avoid freezing to death overnight. As well intentioned as these gestures might be, they serve as a constant reminder that most people won’t even try to understand what you’re doing with your life, or why those choices matter to you.
It’s a lonely life on the road, not just because of this kind of alienation that you feel when talking to people from your former life, but also because of the transitory nature of the friendships you make on the road. Fern meets plenty of kind, caring, and likeminded people, to be sure. There are her seasonal co-workers, camps that pop up to swap tips on the nomad lifestyle as the party into the night, and even a man named David (David Straitham) who tries to spark a more “indoor” sort of romance. The problem is that these relationships only last as long as it takes to find your next opportunity further on up the road. Though the friendships are real, they will ultimately end or at least hit pause every time someone has to resume their own personal journey.
Verdict: 5 out of 5 Stars
While it would be easy to praise Nomadland simply as a star vehicle for Frances McDormand, who does her usual masterful job of conveying emotion by simply looking wistfully off into nature, there is so much more to admire about the film than the Best Actress Nomination waiting to happen. Every single performance in the film is strong, from the professionals to the real-life nomads playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The cinematography beautifully captures the diverse landscapes of America, while the hauntingly simple piano score deepens the sense of loneliness. Chloé Zhao brilliantly sheds light on a culture that will be new to most people, and the life of the nomad will undoubtedly appeal to many, even if it isn’t likely win over very many new converts away from their heat or indoor plumbing.