Nomadland, which has already garnered a lot of Oscar buzz for both writer/director/editor Chloë Zhao, and lead and producer Frances McDormand, was featured at the recent Middleburg Film Festival. Based on Jessica Bruder’s award-winning 2017 nonfiction work Nomandland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film examines the phenomenon of travelers going across the country in search of work, through the lens of a widow named Fern (McDormand), who lives in her van. Other than co-star David Strathairn, who plays fellow nomad David, the secondary characters are all played by real people featured in Bruder’s book. McDormand, Zhao, and many other crew members lived out of vans for the course of the production. The result is a film that is beautiful and sad and unique, and it will blow you away.
It is impossible to watch the film and not think of predecessors like The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the constantly shifting perception of ‘The American Dream’, For many, it has grown toxic and unattainable, and as such in need of redefining.
In the film, Fern has lost everything. Her husband has died, and their town disappeared when the factory they worked in was shuttered. Even the zip code was erased. Fern gets seasonal work at Amazon, but that only lasts for part of the year. We are witness to how she survives, in all her challenges, from day to day. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Fern, and it’s likely this really is one of those roles a specific actor was ‘born to play’, although it’s also possible that McDormand is good enough, and humble enough, to morph into exactly what’s needed from role to role.
McDormand produced the film, and hired Zhao after seeing The Rider, another film in which non-actors are used to propel the story. Both McDormand and Zhao have spoken about their own personal connection to the nomadic life. The actor has shared her wanderlust and desire to traveling across America, and the writer/director was already in the process of building a van because, she said, of how much she lived in her Subaru making her first two films. Neither had really grasped just how extensive the community of nomads had become around the country. They discovered a family of sorts, a nearly universally inclusive, resilient, generous group of people, from all backgrounds, and it blew them away. That gentle awe, and a palpable respect, is shared in every frame onscreen.
What strikes most about the film is that we never truly know whether Fern is happy. We also don’t know if that matters to her. Is she living in honor of her husband, who, having died, doesn’t have that choice? Is she freed by her lack of ties to anyone or anything, or is that a source of deep sadness? There is a moment in the film when Fern approaches a cliff, where she’s been told sparrows nest in the rocks. She stands near the edge, and throws her hands out. Is it to reach for some joy? Is it to say goodbye, before hurling herself into the sea below? We don’t know, and what’s more, it doesn’t matter. It isn’t for us to know. It is for us to accept her, and all nomads, for what they are.
In an interview, Zhao said she doesn’t make political pictures. She says she sets about telling some truth, and lets those that watch it draw their own conclusions. I see it differently. So much art, by its very existence, is an act of activism, and this is true of Nomadland. If you care about the people in this film, if you are moved, it is a call to do something, however little, to alleviate someone’s suffering. It is a call to cease automatic judgment, upon first interaction, with those choosing to live differently around you.
My sister is currently driving across the country with her husband in her trailer, and I had occasion to visit her at the campsite where they were parked. Before she came to see me the next day, she texted that the ‘Little Free Library’ (https://littlefreelibrary.org/) at the campsite had no books. Thinking of the nomads I met through the movie, I pulled together a variety of fiction and nonfiction books that might be of interest to folks living on the road, which I figured was pretty much every genre and every subject. It’s a tiny thing, I know. My sister filled the library with the books, and when she came back a little while later, some of the books were already gone. It doesn’t take much to make a difference in other people’s lives. My contribution was scant, but movies like Nomadland have the power to inspire many people to contribution, however scant, and that can ultimately add up to a lot.
5 out of 5 stars.