I’ll admit, after first watching Nomadland I daydreamed about customizing my small SUV and hitting the road trekking to one national park after another with no end in sight. There’s this uniquely American fantasy about freedom on the open road and never ending road trips that draws us urban and suburban dwellers into Nomadland, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. While there certainly is beauty and freedom in this lifestyle, I don’t think I, or many like me, would adjust well to the harsh realities, even if money weren’t an issue. One needs to be made of tougher stuff to live with a severe lack of modern facilities and have a level of self sufficiency that I don’t think I could manage in many situations. And there’s a fine line between peaceful seclusion and stark loneliness that this life can bring.
Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland follows Fern (Frances McDormand) on her journey living and working as she treks around the American west. Recently, Fern’s husband died and their entire town, Empire NV, has been dissolved following the closing of their factory after the recession. Fern has lost everything but a van and a small storage unit. So she travels, lives in her van and finds temp work. Around the winter holidays she works at Amazon packing boxes, in Arizona she sells rocks. In South Dakota a friend finds her work at the Wall Drug tourist spot just outside the Badlands. In Idaho she works among potato farmers. Along the way she meets old friends and finds new ones, but they’re never a permanent companion. It’s an endless odyssey where you never say goodbye, just “I’ll see ya down the road.”
One of Fern’s notable friends she makes on the road is Dave (David Strathairn). In their first few interactions, it’s seen that he could be a potential romance though the idea is never spoken, much less pursued. His presence in the film is fun and comforting for the most part. Friction occurs when he tries to be helpful and ends up breaking Fern’s plates, a practical and sentimental blow. Later in the film, Fern visits Dave after he’s moved in with his son to be with his new grandchild. He says she can stay, permanently, but Fern knows that that life isn’t meant for her anymore and she’s a bit dismayed that her friend would go back to it.
Nomadland is currently nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and cinematography. Frances McDormand earned her sixth and seventh Oscar nomination (one as an actor, the other as a producer for the film), her third for lead actress. And badass powerhouse Chloé Zhao picks up her first four Oscar nominations by producing, directing, writing and editing this absolute masterpiece. I hope to see her win a few on Oscar night and earn more for years to come.
Before writing, I decided to watch Nomadland a second time and didn’t find myself yearning to hit the open road as much, but filled with sorrow for the reasons people chose this lifestyle. Most of the nomad community Fern befriends are older people who have lost their livelihoods in the recession, lost loved ones or both. Their nomadic lifestyle may be a last resort as the capitalistic system failed them, or the one thing they can control or a last hurrah before the end. While there is a wonderful sense of community when these nomads are together, it’s mainly a lonely life often built on grief and sorrow. I’m still filled with wanderlust, but now there’s a clash between financial and existential dread. And to think of your whole life wasted working for nothing is so disheartening.
“I worked for corporate America, you know, for 20 years. My friend Bill worked for the same company. And… He had liver failure. A week before he was due to retire, HR called him in hospice and said, you know, let’s talk about your retirement. And he died 10 days later, having never been able to take that sailboat that he bought out of his driveway. And he missed out on everything. Then he told me before he died, just don’t waste any time, girl. Don’t waste any time.”