Filmmaker Chloé Zhao is a magician. I don’t use that word to imply that her writing, directing, and editing doesn’t take great effort or that it’s a cheap trick. When I call her “a magician”, it means that the way she’s able to capture humanity without it ever feeling cheap, sentimental, or maudlin, is nothing short of magic. I’m a deeply introverted person who loves my material possessions, and yet her new film Nomadland tempted me into throwing it all away and hitting the open road to converse with fellow nomads. Zhao does this not through romanticizing poverty or glossing over the death of the American Dream, but by showing that our common humanity is not dictated by the fortunes of our economy, but by the resilience and bravery of our character. Led by a quietly empathetic performance from Frances McDormand, Nomadland is about what comes after you’ve lost everything, and finding that’s there so much more than houses in our country.
Fern (McDormand) worked in the company town of Empire, Nevada, but not long after her husband passed away, the town was rocked by the Great Recession and discontinued after 2011. Fern decides that she would be better off living as a nomad, so she packs some belongings into a van, leaves the rest in a storage facility, and hits the open road. Along the way, she meets up with other encampments of fellow travelers including real-life nomads Linda May,Swankie, and Bob Wells. She also keeps crossing paths with fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn), who clearly has a crush on the flinty and hard-working Fern. Through Fern’s journey, we see the changing nature of America contrasted against the permanence of the West’s gorgeous vistas.
At first glimpse, Nomadland seems like a melancholy reflection on a dead America where homeless people scrape out a few bucks working at an Amazon shipping facility before going to sleep in their vans. The film’s genius is in deciding to shatter the paradigm of the American Dream completely to argue that the Dream doesn’t get to serve as a metric of a life well lived. As Fern tells one of her former students, she’s “houseless, not homeless.” Fern and her fellow nomads have consciously chosen to reject a system that leaves them behind, refusing to play by the rules of a rigged game. That doesn’t mean that their lives are easy; a flat tire can be catastrophic and it’s not like it’s fun to put on a paper hat and work at a restaurant for minimum wage, not to mention the risks of life without health care. But the freedom these people possess (and here it should be noted that with its white cast, Nomadland elides what freedom means based on race since it’s not like Fern has to worry about being pulled over based on the color of her skin, so her “freedom” is a part of her white privilege) is alluring. No one in Nomadland asks for our pity; if anything, they probably pity those who are still chasing the American Dream.
Divorced from the concerns of mainstream society, Nomadland asks what we really need and what it means to be human. The film dances on a knife’s edge between romanticizing Fern’s way of life and embracing its hardships. There are times when Fern and Linda May don’t mind cleaning a rest area bathroom together because they’re friends, and they enjoy each other’s company. But in a life where everyone is transient and communities lack permanence, there are also moments of deep loneliness where we see Fern roaming empty small-town streets and open highways. There is so much natural beauty in this country, but it can be oppressive when there’s no one else around.
McDormand is the perfect actress for this story because you need Fern to embody the bravery and self-reliance of a person willing to strike out on their own with all the hardship that entails. Her exterior isn’t threatening, but you inherently know not to fuck with Frances McDormand. Beneath that exterior is a bottomless warmth and grace that always plays as authentic and inviting. You can see why people are drawn to Fern, and the empathy she has for her fellow travelers. McDormand perfectly conveys Fern’s inner journey and conflict of a woman who’s sometimes moving towards her next destination and sometimes running away from a past where she lost everything—her husband, her job, her home, and her town. Watching Fern thrive as a nomad isn’t about turning lemons into lemonade, but an oddly joyful story of resilience and refusal to be victim to a broken system.
Zhao captures all of this through her gentle, thoughtful direction. The lovely score and enchanting cinematography lure us into the grandeur of the open road, not as an escapist fantasy, but to see the richness of this way of life from the perspective of the characters who are living it. Zhao allows us to see the joy and awe these people witness without rendering them as saints or icons. Nomadland never feels like a brochure for being a nomad (although it does paint a beguiling picture), but rather a deeply empathetic look at people who have chosen to find a new life away from what society dictates.
Nomadland never tries to put a happy face on the Great Recession and how the American economy has failed to the point where people become nomads because it’s the best option in a country that’s consistently driving its citizens into poverty. But even after all the possessions we were chasing fade away, Nomadland holds the view that people are basically good. It’s easy to see (especially if you’re too online like me) that America is divided and we’re all at each other’s throats, and yes, we do have some serious problems. But if you can find the bravery of these nomads, you can also discover it’s a big, beautiful country filled with captivating people. America may be ending, but Nomadland is an incredible ode to how its people live on.
Nomadland opens in theaters on December 4th.