Nomadland: A hard hitting portrayal of the unseen side of America

Directed by Chinese film maker Chloè Zhao, (known primarily for her works in American independent film), Nomadland follows a woman in her 60’s who has lost everything in the great recession and embarks on a journey through the American West- living as a modern day van dweller.

The movie was first premiered on September 11, 2020 at the Venice Film festival where it won the Golden Lion Award and released worldwide on January 21, 2021. It also won the 93rd Academy awards for best director, best film and best actress which was won by McDormand for portraying the protagonist Fern in the film.

The film is based on the 2017 non-fiction book ” Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder. Along with Frances McDormand, David Strathairn also stars in a supporting role alongside a number of real life nomads appearing as fictionalized versions of themselves in the movie, including Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells.

The movie begins with Fern who has lost her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shuts down and where she has been working for years along with her husband- who died recently. Deprived of her way of life and beloved one, Fern sells her house along with most of her belongings and purchases a van – which she names Vangaurd- to live in and travel the country searching for work. She takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center through the winter and travels through the vast American landscapes during the summer, dissolved in the immensity of nature- towering trees, snow caped mountains and thundering seas. Fern is alone but she is not in pain, not even when she uses a bucket as a toilet in her van, that she calls home.

Later on in the movie, Linda, a friend and co-worker of Fern invites her to visit a desert rendezvous in Arizona organized by Bob Wells, that provides a support system and community for fellow nomads. Though Fern initially declines, she later changes her mind as winter harderns and she struggles to find work in the area. At the nomad community Fern meets fellow nomads and learns basic survival skills that are necessary while travelling through the road.

Most of the people that Fern meets along the way in “Nomadland” are non-actors, people who live their lives on the road. These modern day nomads tell stories of not wanting to die with their dreams of travelling the country unfulfilled, share tips on how to live life safely on the road, and support each other in ways that neighbors with traditional homes rarely do. There’s an improvised, natural quality to Fern’s conversations and interactions that grounds the film. “Nomadland” becomes more than just a fictional account of a fascinating woman as it also reminds us how many people are out there with stories to tell and dreams going unfulfilled. And yet it never wallows in grief or misery.

Of course, grief is always there, hitching a ride. But Fern doesn’t think she needs to be redeemed or saved, and Zhao doesn’t push buttons in an attempt to make us feel sorry for her either, while also somehow never underestimating the loneliness and sadness of her situation. The result is a film that earns its emotions, which come from genuine, honest empathy more than anything else.

Early on in the movie, Fern tells someone “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. It’s not the same thing”. This strikes our chords really hard and makes us rethink and reconsider the conventional concepts or notions of home, comfort and a sense of belonging.

Throughput the movie Fern moves with great resilience fighting against all odds with so much of grace, which deeply moves the viewers. Director Chloè Zhao has succeeded in constructing Nomadland as a mournful, sublime poem while the beauty of the terrains contrasts with the harsh realities of life on road, where a punctured tyre could mean death. Nomadland is an exhortation to live more keenly, to feel more deeply and to own less while not giving into the “tyranny of the dollar” as one character says in the movie. The stark beauty of the wide shots and the way the light caresses Fern’s face is breathtaking and amazing.

In the middle of the movie Fern is offered an option to live with her sister who is really worried about Fern and wants her presence close by. But whenever Fern is offered this, she refuses quietly and walks away to the freedom of splendid isolation of the road. Detaching herself from a physical house and belongings, Fern goes where her instincts take her.

As a globally recognised Oscar winning actress, Frances McDormand who plays Fern in the movie syncs well with the other real life nomada in the cast. There is a profound stillness and serene calmness in her performance.

The movie tells us that the life of nomads has many rhythms and most importantly thier relationships thrives in rootlessness. The movie studies the vibrant dynamic subculture of nomads in America that disposses groups and has a migratory existence- some of whom has fallen into the financial crisis of the nation. Most of them live in vans, or cars with only a handful of belongings and few attachments. The movie drifts through the lives of these people at a gentle pace -exploring the makeshift community they form together. The ways in which they survive are unconventional and not familiar to us. Yet there is an impressive empathy and compassion to the film.

Zhao and her camera observes without judging and the movie is unhurried- giving us a peak behind the curtains at the lives of individuals that live differently and operate in ways alien to ours.

On the technical side, the film has conquered breathtaking visuals of the nature alongside piecing together everything in a melancholic way.

Undoubtedly, Fern is the unforgettable center of Chloé Zhao’s masterful “Nomadland,” a movie that finds poetry in the story of a seemingly average woman. It is a gorgeous film that’s alternately dreamlike in the way it captures the beauty of this country and grounded in its story about the kind of person we don’t usually see in movies.

The movie doesnt have villians or climax or suspense. But it is one of the beautiful movies that will be remembered. It doesn’t try to glamourise modern van life but captures the harsh realities of real van life which is very lonely and not perfect by any means.

Ayisha Shamna is a medical student at Jubilee Mission Medical College, Thrissur, Kerala.