Nomadland

Nomadland ★★★★★

I got a text from my dad the other day. Typical dad text - short and trivial:

“Nomadland was excellent. Not depressing at all”

I was initially going to skip Chloé Zhao’s new film despite its great reception. I don’t think I fully loved a single American non-documentary film I watched in 2020 (granted, I didn’t watch many) so I’ve been eager to move forward to the 2021 slate. But a glowing endorsement from my dad like that is a rare thing - he’ll watch the occasional movie on nights when there are no sports (he watched Nomadland during the NBA all-star break) but his texts about them are usually along the lines of “okay” or “decent”. At his recommendation I watched Nomadland and I was deeply, deeply moved by a shockingly sincere and beautiful film.

I’m including the lengthy preamble because the context of how I watched the film is critical to my understanding of it. Nomadland is about people my dad’s age. Our protagonist Fern (played brilliantly by Frances McDormand) is nearing retirement age and until the Great Recession had worked for the same company (alongside her husband) for her whole life. When the post-2008 financial crises hit the company went out of business and because of the loss of jobs and people the entire zip code she had lived in disappeared. Everything Fern bought into for her whole life disappeared nearly overnight. The dissolution of her town, loss of what would become her last full-time job, and subsequent death of her husband drives Fern into a nomadic lifestyle. We learn that she was always a bit of an outsider but now she’s going completely off the grid. The film follows her as she moves in her van from place to place and part-time job to part-time job.

The concept could have easily provided a backdrop for a tragic character study in the vein of Agnès Varda’s Vagabond but as my dad succinctly points out, the film doesn’t go that route. Instead we spend two hours with Fern meeting wonderful people on the road who are mostly played by non-professional actors acting as fictionalized versions of themselves. In addition to meeting fellow nomads, Fern is given ample opportunity to take in the beauty of the western United States. She spends time on mountains, swimming in rivers, wandering through national parks, and appreciating the natural beauty of the country whose government has failed her. 

Shot by Joshua James Richards, Nomadland is an exquisitely beautiful film, but it is also a disarmingly sincere one. It’s a film that acknowledges the hollowness of the American empire while demonstrating that there is a community and a beauty to be found in all this space between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that we take for granted. It’s also, at its heart, a film about grief. The death of Fern’s husband years ago is a constant backdrop to her journey. She is occasionally given opportunities for a more stable life but there is a sense that if Fern ever leaves the road she’ll stop mourning and she won’t allow herself to do that. In one exchange late in the film Fern reveals that because her husband had no other family (and because his job and town disappeared with the recession) she feels that if she ever stopped mourning it would be as if he never existed. It’s gut-wrenching because in many ways she’s right.

After watching the film it isn’t hard to see why it moved both me and my dad so much. We’re both only-children and we are both people who moved away from our families as soon as we hit adulthood, leading to our own version of the nomadic mentality. We both live lightly and if it wasn’t for my mom we’d both probably live in nearly unfurnished living spaces. To add to this, my dad lost his father (who I had no relationship with) relatively recently, and his father was so off the grid that my dad didn’t hear of his death until months after his passing. It’s a whole lineage of nomads and disrupted grief. 

Anyways. Enough about me. Nomadland is a great film and if you’re on the fence about watching it I highly recommend taking the dive. It’s a sincere and beautiful film about so many key aspects of the human experience that is essential in an era where we’ve been abandoned by the systems put in place to protect us. It’s also, like the road that is lovingly depicted, a space to meditate, to grieve, and to connect with your community, whoever that may be.

Updated with Mom’s thoughts now that she watched this too: “It was really depressing. Everyone wanted to spend time with her but she was too sad to do that. Also that part of America looks so dry and awful” ....sounds like Mom!

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