One woman finds a new community by leaving her old one behind
By Diana Beechener
“My mom says that you’re homeless, is that true?” asks a little girl early in Nomadland as she looks at her former tutor, Fern (Frances McDormand: Good Omens).
“No, I’m not homeless. I’m just house-less. Not the same thing, right?” Fern replies. That’s not entirely true.
In 2012, during a devastating recession, the company keeping Fern’s small town alive closed. No jobs, no utility services, and no people—widowed Fern is left with a house full of things in a ghost town. There’s no point in selling, no one’s buying. So, Fern buys a van, outfits it with a kitchenette and a bed, and takes to the open road.
She joins a growing community of self-styled nomads. People who’ve lost homes, jobs, communities, or simply grown tired of struggling to achieve the American Dream, and have chosen to live in campers or retrofitted vehicles. They live seasonal job to seasonal job, sometimes working for Amazon Fulfillment Centers during the holiday rush, or working crop harvests. There is even a training camp where people new to the lifestyle learn basic car maintenance and tips to thrive while perpetually on the road.
As Fern embraces the nomadic lifestyle, she finds that though she left her town behind, she’s found a new community. It’s a life of beautiful solitude with gorgeous open vistas and utter freedom. But it’s also a life of hardship. Sometimes your bathroom is a bucket in your van and you are stranded with no money until you come up with a plan.
Will this new community finally offer Fern the freedom and peace she’s looked for? Or is the need for stability too great for her?
A quietly powerful film about a largely unseen population, Nomadland is one of the best films of the year. Director Chloé Zhao (The Rider) has always been fascinated with life on the outskirts of society. Instead of making films that look at people with pity, her documentarian style is an invitation to see these often-overlooked groups as thriving diverse communities. This is not a film filled with poverty-porn, but a look at how some Americans without homes have found ways to get by and thrive.
Zhao has a talent for coaxing brilliant performances from non-actors. Most of the people featured in Nomadland are actual American nomads, playing a version of themselves. As they help Fern learn the ropes, they share their stories about both the beauty and hardship they’ve found along the road. The film even features real life nomad and popular YouTuber Bob Wells, who has mentored hundreds of people interested in adopting the lifestyle. It’s a riveting experience, grounding the film in realism as Zhao explores this subculture of American life.
Though she’s honest about the hardships, Zhao also shows off the beauty found in the nomadic community. The film centers around the western U.S., with director of photography Joshua James Richards (The Rider) capturing long takes of Fern traversing some truly beautiful country. Richards swings the audience from breathtaking sunsets along untouched wilderness to sticky diners in tourist traps. It’s a look at the most beautiful and depressing vistas in America, a true encapsulation of the nation.
At the heart of the film is a career-best performance for McDormand, who spent five months living as a nomad while filming. She’ll probably be earning another Oscar nomination soon, but according to Zhao she was such an impressive seasonal worker while researching the role that Target offered her a fulltime position. McDormand’s talent shines in every scene. Her Fern is a searcher, looking for a new adventure after her quiet life was taken from her. We get glimpses of the life she had before she took to the road, but like Fern, the film is more interested in looking forward than back. She thrives in the solitude of nature, but Fern isn’t anti-social. She builds beautiful relationships with the people she meets, learning their stories as she rewrites her own.
A film of wide-open spaces and intimate human moments, Nomadland takes viewers on their own journey. It’s a chance to rediscover America, looking at a population that you may not have considered before. If you’re feeling cooped up after a year of pandemic social distancing, take a trip with Fern as she wrangles with the freedom and solitude of her new American life.
In theaters or streaming on Hulu starting February 19
Great Drama * R * 108 mins.