Throughout “Nomadland,” breathtaking landscapes surround a white van as it moves along a freeway. The seasons, states and weather change in each shot, but the persistent movement of the van remains. On these isolated roads across California, Nevada, Arizona and South Dakota, the masterpiece of isolation and community that is “Nomadland” unfolds.
Directed by Chloé Zhao and based on the book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder, the film follows Fern (Frances McDormand) as she travels the West in a van named Vanguard. Fern is grieving the loss of her husband as well as the loss of her community after the U.S. Gypsum plant employing her town of Empire, Nevada is shut down, discontinuing the ZIP code and forcing the relocation of its residents.
To cope with her grief, Fern decides to adopt a nomadic lifestyle, choosing only a select few items and leaving the rest of her possessions behind to live in a van and travel around the United States. She takes temporary jobs as she travels, working odd jobs at places such as an Amazon warehouse, a beet farm and a tourist attraction.
Fern’s life on the road is isolating until the introduction of Linda May, one of the real-life nomads in the film. She introduces Fern to the larger community of van-dwellers at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Arizona.
The scenes at the RTR dispel any belief that “Nomadland” is a film solely about isolation. As soon as Fern arrives, another nomad brings over a chair for her as she listens to Bob Wells, an inspirational figure in the van-dwelling world. From that point, Fern is surrounded by an ever-present feeling of kindness, warmth and community. Everyone is willing to share resources and advice or even to lend an ear for a conversation.
“As she gives in and starts to shed her exterior, she finds strength and hope, while at the same time mourning the life she had to give up.” —Claire DuMont ’23
With Zhao’s brilliant directing, the audience is invited into the community of nomads at RTR in real time as Fern gradually opens up to those around her and gives in to being part of the community. McDormand is one of the few actors in the film, and most of the characters are actual nomads playing themselves. While the film is mostly scripted with some improvisation, the stories are based on the nomads. This realistic aspect of the film makes the wholesome friendships even more realistic and heartwarming — the kindness and community is real.
The film is ultimately one about Fern’s grief for her old life and her husband. As she travels in isolation through stunning landscapes and nature, McDormand’s impeccable acting shines through in the deep pain and joy Fern experiences in the film. She finds incredible community with the other nomads, but at first hesitates to fully join in. As she gives in and starts to shed her exterior, she finds strength and hope, while at the same time mourning the life she had to give up.
“Nomadland” is a film that sticks with you. Zhao’s Golden Globe-winning direction brings the audience into each scene and allows them to travel right along Fern. She connects with the other nomads and forms strong friendships — and then is left alone to set out again in her van. Each time the shot of the back of the van returns on screen with the backdrop of music from Ludovico Einaudi, Fern is moving on, back in her isolated existence.
Despite this individualism, however, at its core, the film brilliantly explores themes of friendship and community. As Wells says, this isolation never lasts long, and there is never a final goodbye — it’s always “I’ll see you down the road.”