My first encounter with Nomadland was a case of total serendipity. Scrolling through the news while trapped in the Concord Academy tents, I caught a glimpse of a BBC headline about the film’s director, producer, and screenwriter: Chloe Zhao. At the time, she had just taken home the award for Best Director – Motion Picture at the 2021 Golden Globes, becoming the first Asian woman and the second woman ever to receive this honor.
Nomadland making an eye-catching headline at the Golden Globes was indeed the reason why I hopped into the movie on Hulu the next day. As it turns out, the film did not end up disappointing my initial excitement; in fact, the sleep deprivation resulting from my solo dead-of-night watch party was arguably worth it, and I was elated to find out that roughly two months after the Golden Globes, this intimate film, staged around the struggle of modern-day purpose, grief, and stable existence, deservedly took home Best Picture at the 2021 Oscars .
The story of Nomadland is based on a 2017 non-fiction book of the same title. It was written by an American journalist, Jessica Bruder, who spent months living in a camper van, documenting the lives of nomadic Americans who made the choice to give up their traditional lifestyle in search of one out on the road. In the film, the story begins with Fern, a solitary vandweller who had just lost her job after the closing of the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada as a result of the Great Recession. Building onto the hefty weight of instability on her shoulders, she had also just lost her husband, as well as the home they had resided in for years.
Fern paints a complicated, yet unusually candid portrait of herself with bold strokes. Throughout her narrative, her willful, and at times, stubborn resistance towards unforgiving societal standards was an attitude that perhaps too many of us can relate to. On the other hand, the mere bravery and boldness to leave the more sheltered options in life behind in search of something that’s simply “out there”––perhaps her exploration for an indefinite, yet authentic sense of altruistic self-desire and freedom, is a spirit that I find impossible to replicate.
Throughout the film, Fern acts both as a lens for the audience to look into this unconventional subculture of vagabonds in the West, while also letting us dive into her story in an attempt to fully internalize the nomads’ personal narratives. The viewers get introduced to Fern as a strong individual and a nonconformist, of course, but we also get many chances throughout the film to experience a side of her that helps us spell out her seemingly peculiar nature to the rest of society. As someone gifted with an unusual fearlessness within, Fern pours the utmost authenticity into seeing the deepest reality within herself and others. Her constant search for “something out there” undeniably makes her lifestyle seem bewildering to the world, but she is living with more clarity in what she yearns for and needs than most other individuals, helping the audience to see that here is a bit of life-seeker in each and every one of us; one that longs to be fearlessly unrestrained out into the wilderness––unafraid to lose, take control, and live out the risks.
Frances McDormand brings the role to life with her unusual originality and authenticity, layering out the numerous impressions of Fern with her usual unassuming, unique, and instinctive performance. However, not only does Nomadland allow us to follow the journey of its starring character, it also lets us into the experience of real life wanderers. From the vandweller Bob Wells that inspired thousands to pursue nomadic lifestyles, to the free-spirited Swankie in search of more genuine meanings in the last months of her life, the numerous nomads who stepped into the shoes of actors to portray themselves lend the movie its intrinsic emotional punch. Bouncing between the borders of quiet narrative telling and lifelike documentary, Nomadland is for every individual who is willing to go on an open-minded journey of everlasting discovery, self-revival, and acceptance.