With Nomadland, writer, editor, and director Chloé Zhao has established herself as not only an emerging force in independent, realist cinema, but also as one of the most sentient filmmakers working today. Nominated for four Golden Globes after already taking a victory lap across the film festival circuit, Nomadland is poised to be a front runner for the Academy Awards this March.
The film stars an indomitable Frances McDormand as Fern. For years, Fern and her husband worked at a gypsum plant in Empire, Nev. The audience is told that the plant closed down shortly after the Great Recession and later learns that Fern’s husband has recently died. Still in Empire, Fern has resorted to living in a van built with a bed, a small kitchen, and very little counter space.
Avoiding the overused film trope of the grieving widow, Fern instead becomes a true “nomad,” setting out on an aimless course by herself to see the American West. Due to financial complications, however, she never actually gets to explore the West. Instead, she picks up a bunch of oddball jobs—from an Amazon warehouse employee to a beet farmer—as she heads West. Because Fern needs to work to support herself, she does not have the time to engage in a truly free, untethered lifestyle. Fern’s attempts to strike a balance between working and engaging with her environment ultimately spark a greater conversation about capitalism and how it has forced Americans to feel like they always need to be productive.
Over the course of the film, Fern bumps into other nomads and hears stories from their lives. At one point, a fellow nomad tells her that he refuses to say goodbye to people, instead saying “he will see them down the road.” Additionally, Fern never tries to fill the gap her husband left behind by fostering other relationships. Instead, Fern is at peace with her independence.
The plot is loosely structured and the movie does not follow a typical hero’s journey, but rather relies on core emotional energy rooted in the actors’ performances. It is nearly impossible to dislike the strongest moments of the film, and there are several. In one scene, Fern opens up to a fellow nomad as she tells him about her husband, letting her guard down for a moment. Another scene shows Fern reciting a Shakespearean sonnet to a nomad who asks for a cigarette—a recitation that doesn’t come across as pretentious or misplaced, only heartbreaking.
Nomadland is not meant to be incredibly entertaining, more like a portrait of what people in America look like. Zhao relies on non-actors to play many of the supporting characters in the film, each of them plucked from various rural areas along the West Coast—giving an identity to this often-neglected population of America. The realism is poignant in the movie, and by casting everyday people in the film, Zhao blurs the lines of fiction and documentary enough to where the film is also making a firm political point. Fern’s journey is representative of the prevalent struggle against capitalism to which many working Americans can relate.
Within the first 15 minutes, Zhao includes an extremely low-angle shot of Fern walking into an Amazon warehouse while employed there. From Fern’s perspective, the warehouse is colossal, alluding not only to the stranglehold American corporations have on the American people, but also how people like Fern can only survive due to this parasitic relationship.
Nomads are presented as pioneers throughout the film, living out of their vehicles and not tethered to one place. They are struggling to survive with what they have, but they also embrace the freedom from not being tied to one place. Near the middle of the film, one nomad tells Fern about her cancer diagnosis and how she refuses to sit in a hospital bed, instead choosing to drive to Alaska to see her favorite natural monuments regardless of how little time she has to live.
As Fern says to a government employee at one point, “I want to work, I like work,” it comes across as meaning something else. For Fern, each place she works gives her the opportunity to learn something new and meet new people. Overall, however, she is only working to make ends meet. She may or may not like working, but in a world where one struggles to make ends meet, Fern makes the most out of the options society has given her. Perhaps the best response is to follow Fern, start your engine, and hope you’ll see someone down the road again.
Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures