Film and Book Reviews

Nomadland provides a dream-like window into life on the road

By Wendy Knowlton

Whether it is due to the stockpiling of mainstream films during COVID or a consideration of the need for diversity, the nominations for this awards season include a fascinating range of contenders. Amongst them and worthy of all the accolades it has received is Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland – an extraordinary film that will stay with you long after leaving the cinema. Fern (Frances McDormand) used to live in Empire, Nevada. Her house on the edge of town faced the wilderness as if foreshadowing her future. When both town and husband are lost in quick succession Fern chases seasonal work, travelling in a small van and gradually becoming part of a community of nomads.

Apart from David Strathairn, those she meets are not actors but real-life nomads whose faces are etched with life experience. Part documentary, part lyrical reflection, the film captures those who are running from loss or a consumer society, or those determined to avoid dying with regrets about roads not travelled. McDormand blends in seamlessly, as people interact, move on and meet again – part of a choreographed dance of isolation and reconnection.

There is a disconcerting contrast between moments of bleak emptiness and mesmerising beauty. Fern’s life is in no way idealised. It can be harsh and lonely but the audience is not encouraged to identify with her former neighbour’s pity or feel she is in need of rescue. She insists that she’s “houseless, not homeless” and as she wanders through a campsite, acknowledging every detail, as she floats in a pool of water or contemplates the majesty of rock formations, it is clear there is something of value and joy in what she has chosen. Fern’s lovingly customised van is a fragile buffer against the dangers and demands of the world, but her fierce pride in its modifications makes it seem more a family member than a means of transport.

Nothing is held up for judgement. Fern’s apparently soulless jobs at an Amazon distribution centre, cleaning campsite facilities or flipping burgers are not grudgingly endured but simply accepted as part of how she lives. She likes the dignity and distraction of work, however undervalued her skills might be. Fern herself can be frustrating or abrasive, but her sister understands she has always seen things differently. Fern views the proffered refuge of a family home and comfortable bedroom with similarly bemused eyes to those of the protagonist of The Hurt Locker contemplating the materialistic excess of supermarket shelves after life in a conflict zone. And then she seeks the comfort of her van.

Nomadland may make you yearn to take to the road, or perhaps just open your eyes to different ways of living. Fern is a complex protagonist, lonely and vulnerable, sad but capable of moments of strength and real joy. Ultimately the film offers both her and the audience beauty and hope in the belief that fellow travellers, or those who have been lost, will be waiting somewhere further along the road.