Nomadland is look at a unique throwback lifestyle in a modern world. A hodgepodge of narrative and documentary it is a compelling, if sometimes ponderous, peek into a life that seems incredibly taxing. While a nomadic lifestyle of people living out of their vans, jumping from job to job, and coming together in makeshift communities may seem to lack security, there is a freedom in being unburdened from a cavalcade of responsibilities. As the main character patiently explains, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless”.
Fern (Frances McDormand) is working various odd jobs across the country, substitute teacher, Amazon warehouse worker, janitorial staff and more, while living in her van. After her workplace was shut down and her husband passed away she has found value in a nomadic lifestyle. She learns about a commune run by Bob Wells (playing himself) who offers a temporary community of nomads. There Fern meets Dave (David Strathairn) who she forms a friendship with and Dave invites her to meet his family, and even a place to stay permanently. But Fern doesn’t want to stay in one place although constantly being alone may not be sustainable.
McDormand as Fern puts in a quiet yet powerful performance. This is not a flashy part like she had in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri or Fargo. As Nomadland features real people it would be kind of out of place if the main character was shaking their fist at the heavens. There is a lot of following Fern around nomadic compounds or as she goes about her various jobs. It certainly looks spectacular even if nothing is happening but the sun soaked visuals give it a sense of dreamlike ethereal beauty. This movie does not have an overabundance of plot; it is really about settling into a tone and journeying alongside Fern. Most of the time, it works as scenes are actually fairly zippy. Although every once in a while it bogs down into the minutiae of how these people live, like a scene of Fern immediately having to use a bucket for the bathroom seems unnecessary.
The life she has chosen is not something she’s necessarily ashamed about; she just wants to live free. When Fern goes to visit her sister she points out that it’s dumbfounding to have to invest one’s life savings in a house and be in debt. Importantly, the main reason she visits her sister is just so she can get money to repair her van/home so she is not as independent as she claims. When Fern is having her van fixed, she stumbles over the reason as to why she needs it done until she sheepish reveals that she lives in there.
Strathairn as Dave is the only other largely known actor in the film and he also puts in a naturalistic performance along with McDormand. Although, oddly, the description for Nomadland on the DisneyPlus app describes his performance as “gripping” and out of all the complementary adjectives used to describe Strathairn in the film, “gripping” probably isn’t one of them. But he is heartfelt as he sparsely communicates a depth of emotion underneath a still exterior. When he opens up about his relationship with his son, he simply says that he wasn’t cut out to be a father and there’s a palpable sense of loss to his words.
There is a notion that underneath all of this, people are running away from their problems by living a nomadic life. Fern seems to be mostly happy with her decisions however any option to settle down just makes her uncomfortable. In a way, she is mourning the loss of her old life and her husband passing away by moving onto something unique. Wells as the leader of the troupe of nomads shows that happiness can be found in this type of life finding freedom in life on the road.
The mix of real people and actors distorts the line of reality which makes the film immersive although a bit tricky to sometimes invest emotionally. A “real” nomad known as Swankie offers some astute observations about life on the road, however the character of Swankie is diagnosed with terminal cancer which is a fictional plot point. That feels a wee bit manipulative as real life and fictional life blur. There is a lot of Fern talking to people about their lives which works as a documentary as the real life interview subjects gives the film a sense of pathos. The unspoken theme is people are living nomadic lives as they cannot acquire enough cash in gig works to settle down. An Amazon warehouse job is seen as a way for Fern to get some steady income but she is bounced as a seasonal worker. It doesn’t exactly scream that Amazon is an uncaring monolith employer who abuses their employees, they wouldn’t allow Amazon to be in the movie if it was, nor is it exactly the best look that their workers don’t have a place to live.
Nomadland shines a light on how drifting about from place to place can be both exhausting and yet also freeing. It’s a solitary life that still has moments of community and bliss. Just because one wants to wander doesn’t mean they are broken. They are finding a place of personal harmony in a disjointed, busy world.
Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn and Linda May