By Lexi Matthews
Boston University News Service
From the film’s opening scene, “Nomadland” asks audiences to indulge in a common fantasy: imagine a life where you are unencumbered by the usual headaches of adult responsibility; no 9-to-5, no mortgage, no nagging family, just you and the open road.
“Nomadland,” of course, is no idealistic daydream come-to-life. Fern (Frances McDormand) is a woman who has been chewed up and spit out by the American Dream. She first loses her hometown of Empire, Nevada, when the local sheetrock factory goes under. With the business shuttered, the entire zip code is eliminated within six months. When her husband dies soon after, Fern is broke, broken and entirely alone.
The audience follows Fern in her life now as a modern-day nomad traversing the American countryside, bouncing from temporary job to temporary job while living in her van. Between breathtaking wide shots of the West Coast’s most beautiful landscapes, filmmaker Chloé Zhao provides honest micro glances at the less than the glamorous reality of life on the road. In order to highlight the realities of this lifestyle, Zhao includes moments in which the viewer watches Fern use the bathroom in a bucket, snuggle under a heap of blankets on cold winter nights and trade can openers with other nomads in the area.
Zhao’s film shines its brightest in these intimate moments where we feel a sense of stripped-back truth and genuine empathy for her subjects.
The film is driven less by dialogue and more by depictions of the quiet pursuit of survival, comfort and the humanity we can find in these moments. Zhao plays a delicate balancing act of showing the complex hardships of nomadic life without asking its viewers to feel sorry for the people who live it. It works. The audience cares for these people and derives a certain beauty in their life without feeling forced to pity Fern or her friends.
Of course, “Nomadland” could not strike this balance without a nuanced performance from McDormand. She certainly delivers. It is easy to initially write off Fern as a character given too little background and too little meaningful dialogue to strike a chord with viewers. However, McDormand’s subtle movements and glances speak volumes in a way that a long and winding monologue could not. She reveals grief in Fern in such a palatable way; her quiet sadness, sweet sentimentality, stubborn determination and shy kindness come across to create a woman who often lacks words, but not thoughts.
Her small dialogue and small body create a strong visual representation as Fern is often seen in vast spaces. The film loves to throw McDormand’s tiny body, usually draped in large sweaters, while standing in the middle of a huge canyon, on the side of a massive cliff, nestled at the bottom of a monstrous mountain. The audience feels that she is being consumed by the stillness, swallowed by the enormity outside of her. The audience feels anxiety for her in these moments, yet they are almost always met by the calm strength of Fern’s solitude here. The viewer can see grief in her face, yet she seems unbendable, unfazed by the great nothing.
More prominent than fear is always the beauty of these scenes. In one of the most visually striking moments of the film, Fern floats silently in a body of water that spills out into a waterfall. As she drifts closer to the edge, Fern does not flinch. Her body holds its position serenely, accepting the path she has been set on. That’s how the life of a nomad goes.
McDormand does not stand alone in a great performance. Most of the nomads are played by non-professional actors, real-life nomads themselves. Like Fern, these people are running from grief. Swankie, who has a terminal cancer diagnosis, is on the road to Canada to relive good memories and avoid taking her last breaths “trapped inside a hospital room.” Bob is grappling with the recent suicide of his son. These people give performances that feel raw and authentic because they are raw and authentic; the result is the feeling of receiving life advice from a real sage of lived wisdom.
What “Nomadland” does best is challenge the viewer to question their own preconceived notions of family and belonging. How can we find a sense of home without a house? How can running from tragedy allow us to feel it more clearly? How can we help others while we also need help?
“Nomadland” does not pretend it has the answers for us. Instead, it succeeds in showing us both heartwarming and heart-wrenching moments of love, loss and connection without being too overbearing.
“Nomadland” is a love letter to the idea of helping one another. The nomads are shown to survive through trading advice, food, books, supplies, stories, prayers and love. The idea of loving thy neighbor can easily be ascribed to nearly any religion, political party or basic belief system. The simplicity of the message makes the film feel more universal; this is not a film pushing an agenda about the nomadic people of America. In a time of great uncertainty and hardship for many in 2021, everyone can see a bit of themselves in Fern.
This relatability helped “Nomadland” win Best Film Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globe awards. It will also likely make the film a strong Oscar contender come April.