Nomadland (2020)

"No, I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?""No, I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?"

“No, I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?”

Imagine for a second living in a small town that is run and survives on the livelihood of its manufacturing. Now imagine if that plant shuts down, you lose everything because you can’t afford it and on top of all that, your partner with whom you’ve been married to for years dies. What’s left to live for? Living in the materialistic world we live in; the answer would be not a lot which is exactly how Fern (Frances McDormand) feels. Based on the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by author Jessica Bruder, Nomadland depicts life of older American’s post Great Recession who have given up the “rat race” to live life more freely traveling across the United States.

Fern decides to live out of her van and travel the country working seasonal jobs, the main one being at Amazon during the holidays. It pays good money but its seasonal. Once the season is over, she packs up and moves on to the next adventure. Along the way Fern befriends actual modern American nomads becoming close to a few people who become a sort of adoptive family in her grieving time. 

Nomadland’s strength comes from the characters. These are real people, not actors. The only other actor of any merit is David (David Strathairn). Their relationship has peaks and valleys that borderlines on the romantic side (at least in David’s eyes), but Fern still grieves over her husband; it consumes her. Sometimes Fern is the strongest person and sometimes she’s the weakest. The friendships she builds along her journey become her stability as she overcomes every obstacle. Writer/ Director Chloé Zhao captures Fern’s emotional state perfectly with her screenplay allowing the focus to be more on the journey rather than the barriers that Fern must overcome. 

“If society was throwing us away, and sending us, the workhorse, out to the pasture, we workhorses had to gather together and take care of each other. And that’s what this is all about. The way I see it is that the Titanic is sinking, and economic times are changing. And so my goal is to get the lifeboats out and get as many people into the lifeboats as I can.”

These Nomads that Fern meets are exceptional people, they are resourceful in more ways than most people with the little they have. Some only having a small van, every inch of space is occupied to the point that so much is utilized that isn’t always visible. But even though these people have given up the luxuries that are widely available they still deal with mental, emotional, and physical struggles every single person deals with on a daily basis. Just because Fern doesn’t have a house, a steady job or constant meals everyday does not mean she isn’t lonely. The moments it’s just Fern by herself, the emotion resonates – you feel her pain and grief.

Shot to appear like a documentary so much is learned by the stories of Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells. These three along with David have the biggest impact on Fern and its through their conversations that we are able to understand and sympathize with their life choices. Zhao also edited Nomadland to make it feel like a cohesive story with multiple layers that get pealed back with every interaction. Zhao carefully constructs her powerfully story, there’s a build up that starts slow but the payoff is absolutely worth the wait. Before you know it, 3/4 of the movie past.

Being a Nomad means learning to survive some of the harshest conditions. When Fern gets a flat tire, or her van breaks down she has to rely on those around her that may not have spare resources. Its these moments that Fern learns more about herself and her capabilities that she never knew of. Sometimes the stress of this life weighs on Ferns shoulders a little too much when she goes to her sister for help. It’s here we get a sneak peek into her family life and backstory. It’s a small sample but it’s enough to where we can be satisfied with Fern’s development.  

“I worked for corporate America, you know, for twenty years. And 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, “Now, let’s talk about your retirement.” And he died ten days later, having never been able to take that sailboat that he bought out of his driveway. And he missed out on everything. And he told me before he died, “Just don’t waste any time, Merle. Don’t waste any time.” So I retired as soon as I could. I didn’t want my sailboat to be in the driveway when I died. So, yeah. And it’s not. My sailboat’s out here in the desert.”

Zhao utilizing real people in her adaptation gives the story a more authentic feeling in its foundation. They understand the lifestyle the most since they live it every day while being able to convey the struggle, the heartbreak and also the joy of living houseless. The best way to describe this life is to not think of these people as homeless, as Fern puts it. There is a difference between homeless and houseless and that point is made very clear. Some of these stories are heartbreaking to hear especially when Bob opens up about his son and his suicide. We can feel the pain he feels as he says it trying to repress the tears. 

Watching this film brings up a specific quote from Fight Club. When Tyler Durden says “It’s only after we’ve lost everything, that we’re free to do anything” the comparison between both films is uncanny. Granted these are two vastly different films but Fern lost everything she loved but she became free in the process. 

Nomadland is all about Fern’s journey and France’s performance is the anchor for the story that’s told. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures the spirit of this lifestyle to give the impression of understanding it with beautiful shots of the countryside. We are able to feel Fern’s loneliness as she sleeps, does her laundry, works, smokes cigarettes and drives to the next town. It’s through Fern and McDormands performance that we learn of the true spirit of the American People. This is how we are meant to be as humans and it’s that toughness that is emphasized the most.

Nomadland is a beautifully told slow burn of a story about life and how we all choose to live it. Some of us would rather give up everything, travel the country and live freely while others feel that money and materialistic items are top priority. Frances McDormand gives a powerful performance that provides the backbone for Chloé Zhao’s story. So much can be learned from the next person if we are open to learning about their experiences. With stunning cinematography and a score that matches it, Nomadland is a clear front runner for this year’s Academy Awards. If I were to rate Nomadland, I’d rate it a 5 out of 5. 

So, tell me, have you seen Nomadland and if so, what do you think about it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Comment below or send me an email and let me know what you think. 

Nomadland is written & directed by Chloé Zhao is Rated R and has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. Nomadland premiered on September 11, 2020 and was released on streaming on February 19, 2021 and has a runtime of 1 hour and 48 minutes. Nomadland can be streamed on Hulu.

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