Nomadland begins in abject hopelessness. In the first scene of the movie, we’re introduced to Fern as her livelihood begins to disintegrate. She initially commits to living out of a van as a form of escapism, but as the year progresses, both she and the viewer get to experience the pure hope held by the people Fern meets and the beauty of the world around her.
Nomadland is directed, written, produced and edited by rising star Chloé Zhao. It is based on a 2017 non-fiction novel of the same name by Jessica Bruder, and was released at several film festivals (Venice and Toronto) throughout 2020 to critical acclaim. Frances McDormand portrays Fern, a woman who, having recently lost her job and her husband, commits to a nomadic lifestyle.
If I had to describe Nomadland in one word, it would be “optimistic.” Despite being a movie about processing tragedy, Fern has a can-do spirit that provides you with almost no choice but to smile and root for her. Her charm shines through in her one-on-one interactions with fellow nomads, where topics like fancy RVs and fond memories create a jubilant sense of enthusiasm.
Throughout the entire film, themes of nature and sprawling wilderness are sharply contrasted against interior scenes in Amazon packaging facilities and tight van spaces. America is so expansive, so large and so beautiful–yet Americans end up trapped in these cramped spaces, almost of their own free will. The symbol of living in a van (mobility and flexibility) makes a statement on the resilience of the American people in the aftermath of the 2008 market crash. This message of hope can be extended to the current situation in the United States: COVID-19 and its impact on the American economy.
Zhao’s filmmaking and McDormand’s performance create an air of tranquility that never feels slow or boring. Sweeping shots of ethereal wilderness are juxtaposed against Fern’s grounded personal interactions. Each of Fern’s conversations, whether they're about poop buckets or terminal illness, are told with such authenticity that my friends turned to me during the movie and asked if it was a documentary. This movie is dripping with charm and an otherworldly ability to be calm and reassuring. Everyone feels real.
The score of this movie, composed by Ludovico Einaudi, perfectly complements the tranquil beauty of America that this movie masterfully highlights. Wordless shots between scenes showing sunsets and wilderness with a light piano or violin backing create an experience like no other, almost resembling a documentary. It’s an overused saying, but every frame of this movie is a painting.
Furthermore, Nomadland is able to provide an accurate and well-researched spotlight on a unique community–modern nomads. Besides McDormand’s performance as Fern, the rest of the cast–Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells and Peter Spears–is composed of real-life nomads playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The film crew commits to a realistic portrayal of the nomadic lifestyle and the attention to detail shines in how human every character feels.
In one of the first few scenes of the movie, Fern talks with a family friend about her current situation. After being asked if she was “homeless” by her friend’s daughter, she responds confidently that “she isn’t homeless, she’s houseless. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Nothing captures the spirit and strength of this movie–the optimism in a hopeless time–like that singular piece of dialogue. Similarly, the sense of warmth and community between Fern and her fellow nomads crafts an incredibly uplifting tone. There are many times when Nomadland states confidently that even in the darkest times, you will not be alone. After all, even the most remote people in America have a community.
Nomadland begins streaming on Hulu on February 19. The film is also currently in theaters, but I strongly discourage any in-person movie theatre attendance.
Photo courtesy of YouTube.