There is a certain notion of a wishful romance associated with wanting to break out of the mad rush of the metro life, work and the mundane rat race to just exist. There is a certain imagined charm to just throw everything to the winds and travel and lead a nomadic life as a vandweller. However, not all is green in pastures that Chloé Zhao creates in her film Nomadland that shakes you out of that reverie and makes you confront the reality of losing one’s work, home, anchor, and being forced into a nomad life.
The film is based on Jessica Bruder’s book — Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which is a chronicle of the senior citizens of America who turn to a transient lifestyle, travelling around the country in search of seasonal work. Published in 2017, it is the narrative of the forgotten Americans that the society and system have pushed aside.
Nomadland is the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a Nevada-based sexagenarian woman whose life has been ripped away. After being recently widowed, Fern also loses her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shuts down on January 31, 2011. Empire was the company town for US Gypsum, and after the plant closed its doors, the zip code of the town was “discontinued” as Empire became a ghost town after June 20, 2011. This effectively displaces the residents; Fern among them.
Fern has no choice but to leave her home and life behind. She sells her belongings, purchases a van to live and travel the country in, searching for work. Over the course of her nomadic life, she is introduced to Swankie and Bob Wells through Linda May (real-life nomads who play fictionalised versions of themselves). Linda is portrayed as Fern’s friend and co-worker who introduces her to a support system and community for fellow nomads, where Fern learns basic survival skills for the road. Fern takes up seasonal odd jobs over the course of her travel, reunites with her sister under duress, meets David (David Strathairn), with whom she develops a romantic relationship. However, she declines to “settle down”, revisits Empire eventually and embraces her nomadic life and moves on — literally and figuratively. She stops running away from her life and continues to travel as a nomad by choice.
Bagging the Best Motion Picture at the 78th Golden Globe Awards, Nomadland is the kind of film that makes you question the need for a structured life while banishing all notions of the romance of a nomadic existence. Fern is shown to almost freeze to death in her van. Even basic necessities like food and medical aid are hard to come by. The need for human companionship and the fleeting nature of it in a nomadic life could well lead to mental health issues in some. Yet, as American hiker Alexander Supertramp (Christopher McCandless) puts it, “If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life, you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.”
Chloé Zhao brings out the best of performances in the well-developed characters. She richly deserves the Best Director Award that she bagged at the Golden Globe today (and became the first Asian American woman to do so).
Begin your week and month by watching Nomadland on Hulu as you question the notion of structure and “saving up to enjoy life post-retirement” in the fickle existence of today’s world. You will not regret it.