When nomadic wanderlust becomes a way of life, what does it mean to maintain one’s independence?
After hearing widespread acclaim from critics on the various film podcasts I listen to, and being careful to avoid any in-depth discussions, spoilers, or reviews, I was curiously anticipating the wide release of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. Hulu released it late last month, and I was quick to pull the trigger, settling in for what, I didn’t quite know. What I came away with was something understated, moving, and quietly beautiful. I didn’t expect to connect with this film the way I did based purely on its description, but in these pandemic times, it was cathartic to see someone able to travel and connecting with others. It’s not that isolation doesn’t exist, because it is a running theme throughout, but in this case, it’s a more of a choice as opposed to a mandate.
Frances McDormand plays a woman in her sixties named, Fern who loses everything in the Great Recession following the closing of the plant where she and her husband worked. When her husband passes away, she sells her remaining possessions and buys the van she’s living in when we meet her at the start of the film. We watch as she works odd jobs, including seasonal work at an Amazon fulfillment center during the winter, in order to make enough money for food, gas, and parking fees.
After some convincing from a friend, she drives to Arizona when her job ends, opting for the comfort of the Southwestern desert when freezing temperatures descend upon the area, rendering it dangerous for her to sleep in her van through the night. In Arizona, Fern embraces a community of nomads, that provide support to fellow “rubber tramps,” a term common among nomads with vehicals. When the group moves on, she stays behind opting to go her own way, and from here, we travel with Fern as she tackles various obstacles on the road.
When thinking about how this film relates to this month’s theme (luck), a few things come to mind. First, I couldn’t help but feel for this woman who has clearly undergone a spell of bad luck in order to get to this place, but because Fern never treats her situation as such, it’s hard to hold on to this idea for very long, and I ultimately saw her strength as her own lucky charm. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself, she doesn’t want pity, and she doesn’t want to be seen or treated as a victim, which is made clear by a scene early in the film when she runs into some people she knows at a store.
They, clearly concerned for her, come up and ask how she’s doing, where she’s living/working, and offering her help. Fern, transparent and firm, tells them she’s fine. When asked outright if she’s homeless, Fern responds by saying, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” which to her, are two very different things. After being dependent on a job for security in the past, which ultimately proved to be unstable, I got the sense that she feels lucky at this point in her life not to be tied down to any one thing.
She has a job, can usually get work, doesn’t have any major health issues, and is content living minimally. She has a mode of transportation allowing her the freedom to travel, which minus its expenses, can be seen as a plus when looking for work. While it’s undeniably a hard life—as demonstrated in a later scene when she gets flat tire—it’s not a hopeless one. I never got the feeling that Fern was necessarily forced into her situation, which is highlighted when we meet her sister and realize she does have a support system. This is the life she’s chosen, and there’s freedom in that because she’s chosen to rely on herself.
In terms of her relationships, Fern is anything but unlucky. She’s an extremely warm person underneath a hardened exterior, which becomes evident through the people that gravitate toward her on the road. We learn more about the loss of her husband later on, which explains a lot about her guarded nature, which isn’t to say that she’s unkind or unemotional; I think it just speaks to her trauma and perhaps what she wants out of life at his point. She does eventually let a few people in along the way, including a woman named Swankie, who’s dying of cancer and who mentors her about living on the road, and a man named David, with whom she enters into a would-be romantic relationship.
What I found beautiful about life as a nomad through the lens of this film, was how profound the relationships between fellow nomads seemed to be, and the communities forged on the road. Unlike traditional bonds, nomadic bonds may be stronger in the sense that life is more fragile on the road. Because of this, there’s no time or use for anything but authenticity. Further, what you see is what you get, so there appears to be a widespread culture of accepting others as they are among nomads. Other than for companionship, it’s lucky that communities, like the one Fern joins up with in Arizona, exist because basic human needs must still be met, and beyond opportunities for trading, meals, and rest, they offer things like morale, protection, and company.
At one point Fern receives a chair from her friend Swankie, and even though it’s nothing more than a worn, old picnic chair, it's apparent how grateful she feels to have it. The simple act of having a place to sit down is nothing to take for granted when your house has wheels, and she knows this. When Swankie eventually passes away, word travels “down the road,” and Fern comes together with fellow nomads that knew her to remember their friend. This memorial reminds us that while we may think of these people as vagabonds, they are not traveling alone. They feel the loss when one of them passes, just as any family does, and we’re reminded how connected they actually are.
Fern’s relationship with David, a man she meets at the desert community in Arizona, continues to show up on her journey. She runs into him again when she takes a job as a camp host in Badlands National Park, where he has also taken a job. When he falls ill, Fern visits him in the hospital, and slowly but steadily, the two form a bond. They work side by side at a Wall Drug in South Dakota for a spell before David gets word from his son that his wife is expecting a baby and wants him to come home and meet his grandchild. Their paths diverge when Fern declines David’s offer to join him on his trip home.
She does eventually end up visiting him for a few days, where she learns of his plans to stay and of his feelings for her. He invites her to stay with him, but she declines and slips away in the morning almost as suddenly as David appeared in her life to begin with. Family is important to Fern, but she doesn’t seem to want to insert herself in other people’s families—like David’s or her sisters, as we see in another scene—out of lonliness or a desire to get back what she lost. Fate may have brought Fern and David together, and I believe they were better off having know one another, but some people just aren’t meant to stay in our lives forever. While I was sorry to see their story come to a close, her decision to leave felt like the right one.
What I found most comforting as I watched this film, especially as a woman often identifying with Fern, was the fact that not once did she come across someone who meant her harm of any kind—sexually, physically, or otherwise. While I’m certain this isn’t the experience of every person living nomadically, I was glad that it wasn’t the focus of this film. It was lucky for Fern, and I felt fortunate as a viewer, not having to worry for her personal safety as I went on her journey with her. Instead, kindness, empathy, and generosity, despite hardship, shone through, not to mention gorgeous shots of American landscape.
While this wasn’t the film I thought would comfort me in quarantine, it was. I felt safe, reassured, and hopeful watching Fern’s journey. There is undeniable sadness and grief in her story that I felt right along with her, thanks to McDormand’s performance, but her spirit is so pure and gracious, she transcends. In a year and counting that has felt anything but hopeful, being able to hang out with Frances McDormand in this capacity, in a role only she could have brought such warmth to, I feel lucky.
Nomadland is currently available on Hulu.