REVIEW: ‘Nomadland’ traverses through American landscape, self-exploration

Frances McDormand stars as the grieving independent Fern, a woman in her 60’s who’s lost nearly everything and has chosen to live the life of a nomad. Promotional artwork courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

It’s been more than a year since we’ve been in lockdown due to the pandemic. Most places aren’t open at full capacity and many remain completely closed. For (hopefully) most people, they’ve been stuck in their home for while now. For other people, they may be at home, but not necessarily stuck in one place. 

Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland (based on Jessica Bruder’s book by the same name) is a refreshing narrative on a lesser known way of living — those of the nomads — accompanied by an exceptional performance by Frances McDormand, astounding shots of the American landscape, delicate score, and raw exploration of the quest for self-fulfillment.

McDormand plays the role of Fern, a middle-aged woman who had everything taken from her in the wake of the Great Recession. She lost her job, her town, her husband, her house — but not her home. Fern lives in her precious van that she lovingly calls Vanguard, and considers her own home. She travels alone but meets several other nomads over the course of the film. 

The nomadic way of living is shown through Fern’s eyes and her relationships with the other nomads in the film. Nomadland does a fantastic job of showing both the joys and sorrows of the lifestyle without romanticising the hardships. 

And the hardships often play a huge role in the nomadic lifestyle. More often than not, the nomads in the film are more elderly people dealing with health issues or even terminal illness like Swankie, one of Fern’s friends. Sometimes they are facing financial issues and at the lowest point of their lives. Or like Fern, they had lost nearly everything. 

The troubles that the nomads go through are portrayed in such a memorable and fantastic way, thanks to the actors. Except for McDormand and David Straithairn, who plays the kind yet slightly awkward nomad who harbors feelings for Fern, all the rest of the nomads are played by real nomads. It wouldn’t be fair to call them performances because they’re not. It’s the inclusion of real nomads that makes the film so real, so intimate, so candid. 

Needless to say, they do an amazing job of conveying their reasoning for choosing to walk — or drive — a path unfamiliar to most, and their experiences with their decision. 

Their raw, candid, deep conversations instills a sense of community whenever Fern meets up with a friend or simply makes new ones as she travels. It seems as if all the nomads she meets are the most selfless people. They cut each other’s hair, trade tips for staying safe, give away lighters and paint, share coffee, and so on. Yet time after time Fern says her farewells and drives off alone once again. 

This dance between solitude and community that is so well portrayed by Zhao helps enforce how yes, the nomads may be ‘liberated’ in a sense, free to go where they please, yet they often face other hardships. It shows that you can’t run away from your problems.

No matter how far you run (or drive) from them, it’s impossible to be completely free. 

It’s a window into the unique lifestyle of the nomads. 

Among the realistic interactions are the beautiful shots of the American landscape that help set Nomadland apart from other movies. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures amazing shots of pink sunrises, starry nights, vast mountains, stormy cliffs, and so on. It’s a huge variety of landscapes that are unique to America. 

That’s another thing that Nomadland does such a good job of telling. Nomadland explores American tradition, with Fern pushing past it and forging her own way in life. The audience is thrust into a world probably vastly different from its own — a life that is constantly on the go with a sense of comforting solitude — and Zhao’s way of portraying the kind of life that isn’t often seen in movies is respectful and enlightening. 

That isn’t to say that Nomadland is without faults. Fern’s story is told through a lot of wandering around. This isn’t what most audiences are used to in Hollywood films. While it does make Nomadland stand out, it can be a bit underwhelming for those expecting more action. It’s a little hard to stay engaged during a movie that sometimes feels more like a documentary. But once you get past that, the beauty of the film starts to sink in. 

“The audience is thrust into a world probably vastly different from its own — a life that is constantly on the go with a sense of comforting solitude — and Zhao’s way of portraying the kind of life that isn’t often seen in movies is respectful and enlightening.”

Promotional artwork for ‘Nomadland’ courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland isn’t just a woman driving for nearly two hours, it’s a poetic story about self-fulfillment, grief, solitude and community, and survival. It’s a glimpse into a lifestyle not portrayed often in media, but just as valid. It’s a story of a woman trying to find her place in a world plagued by austerity. So even though Nomadland doesn’t fit the common mold for movies, you should still take a chance and watch it. After all, it’s often the roads less traveled that make all the difference. 

Mariel Herrera is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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