Life on the road.
Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, packing up everything and living compactly in a van has been romanticized, especially on TikTok, as an alternative to settling down, during a year in which many have called off vacations, opting to stay at home instead.
Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” does not do this, delivering a gritty, honest film that includes real-life nomads mixed with actors that attempts to honestly portray the lifestyle in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman who hit the road after her husband died, and she lost her job at the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada in 2011. For Fern, her journey seems to be very much also about running away, from Empire, from the void her dead husband left in their home, and from feeling directionless and alone, instead opting for a life of sightseeing and seasonal work.
Fern proves to be a jack of all trades, working at an Amazon fulfillment center, a potato processing center, a restaurant, some sort of club, and other jobs throughout the film. The film does contain a scene in which a worker at an employment office tries to disparage her, but it’s very clear that Fern’s van lifestyle is a conscious choice, and she is fully capable of supporting herself and finding an immobile home if she wanted to; it’s just not for her.
Real-life nomads Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells play real-life versions of themselves in the film and serve supporting roles in the film, and despite not being professional actors, the versions of themselves they play each have depth and have deep emotional resonance and insights that heighten the film. The film is about Fern, but in many ways she serves as a camera lense into the real world of nomad life, and some of the best moments in the film comes from the film’s supporting cast.
Linda May serves as a key best friend-like character for Fern, and she proves to be key into explaining the role trauma can factor into adopting a nomadic lifestyle. Swankie’s character is dying of disease, and chooses to live life on the road experiencing the world instead of slowly withering away. Bob Wells directs a support group for nomads, using the loss of his son as a means to push himself forward, to do good in order to make his son proud.
These are deep, mature themes, and the film handles them with care and respect.
And in a nutshell, that’s what this film is all about; capturing moments as close to the real thing as you can without shooting a documentary, in order to show general audiences a little slice of what it’s like to adopt this lifestyle.
I didn’t see this film before we put together our awards list for 2020, but I have no doubt it would have made the cut, and it deserves every award it’s gotten so far.
“Nomadland” not only faithfully depicts believable dilemmas and struggles nomadic people face, it also uses its subject matter as a vehicle to explore the beauty of this world, and what it can feel like to live free, not tethered to one place.
It’s truly a beautiful film you should check out.
“Nomadland” gets a 9/10