Poetic and surprisingly moving, this Best Picture winner is light on plot but deep on meaning
Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand (Fern), David Strathairn (Dave), Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, Peter Spears, Derek Endres
We all have ideas about what life should look like in the 21st century. Settled job, dream home, the rooted life. It’s what we are expected to be working towards – but it’s not for everyone. Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s Malick-influenced road movie explores the lives of those who decide to live off that beaten track. The modern nomad, who chooses flexibility to move their home from place to place and don’t want to be tied down by bricks-and-mortar. It makes for a meditative, soulfully poetic film with a quietly mesmeric power.
Fern (Frances McDormand) is recently widowed, childless and has lost her job after the gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada closes. But, far from down-hearted, Fern is determined to lead a new life without the fixed commitments of her old one. She sells most of her possessions, kits out a van as a travel home and begins to drive across the country, taking seasonal jobs as and where she stops. She finds herself part of a warm and supportive community of nomads, who help to learn how to flourish in this unconventional home life.
Nomadland winning Best Picture is as close as the Oscars have come to giving an award to Terence Malick. It’s hard not to feel his influence over the camera’s languid worship of the beauty of the Badlands, or its characters quiet searching for higher in life, via a communing with nature. Zhao’s film is a very effective and surprisingly moving character study, with only the smallest smidgen of a plot, but full of feeling. Radiantly shot by Joshua James Richards, it finds an orange-tinged beauty in a dawn and dusk and tiny moments of joy in rain falling in your face. All contrasted with the dull oppressiveness of buildings, those four walls shutting out nature.
Zhao’s film goes a long way in challenging neat assumptions we might have about this lifestyle. “I’m not homeless I’m houseless” Fern states and she politely – but firmly – turns down well-meaning offers of charity. The decision to move from place-to-place is not one enforced by poverty or failure. Instead, this is a rich, vibrant, supportive community that looks out for each other and share a legitimate (and refreshing) view of the world. Who says you need to spend your life chasing the dollar and building up a debt to have a fixed slice of real-estate you can sort of call your own?
This is particularly true in our post-recession world. Nomadland starts with the final collapse of an industrial community, now a ghost town. Many of the nomads find seasonal work that is often manual and low-skilled. Fern’s first job (of many) is working at an Amazon dispatch location, where jolly team leaders burst with enthusiasm met with smiling indifference by the (often older) staff. Fern’s travel is shaped around moving to key locations for seasonal work – Amazon, a campsite, a short-order chef job, beet processing… The economic situation is poor, but this is a way of playing the system to get a higher level of freedom, without debt or financial pressures.
It’s a key subject of a talk given to fellow nomads by Bob Wells, an influential advocate of the nomad life-style (one of any people playing versions of themselves). It’s part of a series of events at a nomad event – a sort of convention – where people gather to share experiences, advise and life-hacks. Ever needed to know how to change a tyre or what size bucket you should use for your built-in toilet? Wonder no more! On the road people come together in a way they never would in more regular life. With everything transient and nothing fixed, friendships and connections are more intense, constantly in that first glow of excitement.
That’s the pay-off of choosing this lifestyle. Everything is transient. Close friendships form, but you might not see the other person for months at a time. While phones help you to keep in touch, day-to-day you see completely different people from place-to-place. It will never be completely clear where you might be to your family. However, the short-lived intensity of connections can lead to a closeness and intimacy that might otherwise take months – a friend of Fern’s confides she has terminal cancer but regrets nothing, with a warmth and trust that would normally takes years to form not weeks.
It’s implied as well that the more short-lived intensity of friendships fits more with what the slightly taciturn and guarded Fern wants from life. Frances McDormand makes her friendly, ready with a smile, good company – but she is always slightly reserved and guarded. She will give sympathetic ears and invite confidences. But she is also a woman determined to live by her own rule. Having lived most of her life in one place in a happy marriage, a conversation with her sister (who bails her out with a loan to repair her van) reveals she was always prone to not look back when a decision was made. It’s the same with deciding to live on the road as moving to Empire – Fern knows her own heart and mind, and will fully commit to that.
This is despite temptations, the main one she faces being David Strathairn’s (the only other professional actor in the film) Dave, a fellow nomad who makes no secret of his romantic interest in her. Sweetly played by Strathairn, Dave pursues Fern and dangles the possibility of a more fixed and traditional life. They are close, but Fern has lived that life of marriage and rejected already the idea of a family. And, as McDormand makes clear in her soulful eyes, if that life was ever on the cards, it would have been with her husband not this new man, nice as he is.
Nomadland, like Fern, can see the dangers and problems. A van breaking down in the middle of nowhere is a major danger, a broken plate a potential disaster – Fern painstakingly reassembles it, not wishing to spend the money to replace it. Low temperatures and bad weather can make it uncomfortable – although she (smilingly) rejects an offer from a garage owner to sleep inside. But it also understands living this lifestyle is a legitimate choice, filled with rich possibilities. You only need to see Fern joyfully travel to the coast or get wrapped up in the embrace of the vibrant community she finds on the road to see that you could do immeasurably worse with your life.
Zhao’s film has a documentary realism to it, that comes from its deep immersion in real nomad communities. It makes copious use of real nomads playing versions of themselves, giving a rich feeling of authenticity to every moment. It also means we gain a real understanding of the idea that goodbyes are never final in this world, that there is always the prospect of seeing someone again “down the road”. The film’s poetic empathy, its warmth and the vibrant humanity of its characters makes it film that creeps up on you and has a surprising, but profound, power.