Don’t worry about me. I’m okay.
The film opens with words too many Americans will understand: “On January 31, 2011, US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada after 88 years.” One night there’s hope in tomorrow because you have a well-paying job and a community to rally around. The next day it’s gone. Literally. Just six months later the town’s zip code was discontinued, its houses abandoned. In a post-capitalist society where the rich get richer and the poor get even poorer, the latter can’t simply stick around and wait. So the older folks who know they’re no competition against younger generations vying for the same job opportunities have to think outside the box. Some sell everything, purchase a van or RV, and drive to pick up seasonal work along the way.
That’s what too many Americans think at least. As Jessica Bruder‘s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century surely relates (I haven’t read it) and Chloé Zhao‘s cinematic adaptation shortened to Nomadland portrays, this phenomenon goes much deeper than frugal living. And much like the writer/director did on her last film The Rider, Zhao recruits those who are actually enduring the struggle to shed light upon their plight and the emotional complexities surrounding their decision. Whether it’s Linda May dreaming of a self-sustaining future she can leave to her children, Swankie‘s refusal to die in a hospital bed when the countryside has so many miraculous sights to see, or Bob Wells honoring a son he believes he’ll meet again, this lifestyle isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity.
So Zhao creates a character in Fern (Frances McDormand) as our entry point into this part of society we too easily ignore. She and her late husband lived in Empire before his death and she remained until the town died too. Fern is an eccentric woman who isn’t prone to linger when a given situation’s utility has run out, but those who know and love her never take it personally. She has friends willing to shelter her and family begging her to take the bed in their guest room. And she does try to accept that kindness—we see one such attempt later courtesy of a fellow “nomad” whose recent familial developments have trumped whatever it was that previously kept him driving. But doing so never feels right.
As those attending Bob Well’s desert-set “nomad living” conventions explain during fireside roundtables: the reasons are many. Some have PTSD and need the quiet of nature to soothe their minds. Some have poor healthy and hope to ensure they won’t die before crossing out a few spots on their bucket list after watching friends pass before they could do the same. They find employment at national parks or as service workers at fairs. They pass the time until Amazon hires Christmas help with the added incentive of paying for a mobile home plot during their contract. The money goes towards gas and food. Their vehicles become their closest family. And they watch as the world pities them. Outsiders will never understand how this life heals their broken souls.
That’s the beautiful image Nomadland conveys by focusing on the humanity of those within rather than the preconceptions of those who aren’t. We see fathers hoping to give their children a birthday party no matter how meager their means. There are vagabonds selling homemade wares to keep going and young people trying to survive outside of a system they physically can’t abide by anymore. And they’re all empathetic to each other’s plight because they know how hard it is to live this way and how much harder it is to stop. They barter for goods and services. They give rides and pay forward cigarette lighters and share whatever wisdom they have from their former lives whether it be carpentry or poetry. Financial simplicity provides spiritual wealth.
A family is formed of distant relatives by way of a philosophy instead of blood and marriage. They tread lightly not knowing what might trigger their new brother or sister into an inescapable cycle of the past and keep their distance when requested by pirate flags or closed doors. It’s this level of respect that makes the interactions on-screen so heartwarming to experience because it allows the characters to bare their souls and know they won’t be judged. As Bob says during one such exchange, the best part of this existence is never being forced into saying a final goodbye. They hug and cry and go their separate ways, but they know their paths will cross again either in nature, at an Amazon, or in the afterlife.
So there’s no need to rush things. There’s no need to shoehorn in a romantic love story between Fern and her new doting friend Dave (David Strathairn). That’s not what this is about. These people don’t need to be saved. Fate doesn’t have to provide them an out because this choice is about seeking privacy and independence. It’s about rejecting capitalism or at the very least using it as a means to escape it. That former life is what got them here. That conditioned need to spend money on material goods and accrue debt to fulfill a hollow dream sold through marketing is what stole everything tangible and intangible from their grasp. New friendships are therefore a delicate process of boundaries and understanding. Zhao doesn’t compromise that truth.
McDormand doesn’t either. She becomes a sponge for the non-professionals to tell their stories and imbues the heartache and restlessness of what it is to be someone who can both cherish and regret their decisions at the same time. Maybe her Fern did spend too much of her life as a memorial to the past—remembering rather than living. Maybe things would be different if she’d done the opposite. But maybe this journey she’s on is what can bring that clarity. Maybe that clarity, augmented by Ludovico Einaudi‘s music (this is a soundtrack of existing pieces, not a score), is the destination. There’s a resonant sense of grace in that thought because it keeps Fern in control and supplies the space to breathe in a world as free as her.
courtesy of TIFF