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‘Nomadland’ Taps Into An Understated American Subculture

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In the wake of severe economic downfall and the loss of her husband, a woman leaves her rural Nevada hometown to embark on a deep-dive of the country. What follows is a string of unflinching, personal moments, little fallbacks and triumphs in spite of perpetual uncertainty.

Based on the 2017 book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder, director and screenwriter Chloé Zhao offers a contemporary look at the trials and tribulations of nomadic life in the greater rural American West. In Zhao’s upfront and personal reimagining of the nomad narrative, we are left with an intimate look at the life of 60-something-year-old Fern, a spunky, self-proclaimed “nomad” portrayed by two-time Emmy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand.

The feature film, which was released on Hulu on Feb. 19, marks the third of Zhao’s independent directorial efforts. “Nomadland” was shot over the course of four months, as Zhao and her film crew documented the lives of real-life and non-actor nomadic communities. Zhao has since been nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes, marking her as the first Asian woman recognized in such a category. 

Photo provided by Nomadland @nomadlandfilm/Twitter

Life as Fern knows it has radically shifted its course, leaving her to fend for herself in the midst of a barren, bleak December. Fern begins to spend most of her time in quiet solitude, often on the road to and from temporary parking spaces and living adjustments — forging new connections here and there but never growing attached to a single point, place or person. She’s rough around the edges but inevitably warms up to Dave (David Strathairn), both of whom spend a stint working at the Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota.

She soon grows accustomed to the hustle-and-bustle of vandwelling — even naming her van “Vanguard” and tailoring it to her survival needs, often sifting through collections of other van-dwellers’ unneeded livingware to keep for her own practical use. Her van — fit with bespoke goods and other paraphernalia needed to sustain an active, diminished lifestyle — isn’t far off from modern vandwellers, notably YouTube star Jennelle Eliana’s youthful take on “vanlife.”

Fern is most often guided by friends Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, fellow vandwellers and real-life nomads. Zhao’s choice to cast non-actors in the film plays to her strengths as an honest, down-to-earth storyteller. Stripped of inauthentic or contrived moments of cinematography, Zhao lays bare the reality of the rough and tumble, “on-the-road again” lifestyle. Frankly, it’s as if viewers aren’t watching actors act, but people live.

Photo provided by Nomadland @nomadlandfilm/Twitter

Fern is but one member of the larger kindred community of van-bound and RV-bound nomads. Like Fern, most are left to reckon with financial or familial ruin, having no choice but to embrace the dust and drag of the American southwest. 

Watching “Nomadland,” I find myself living vicariously through Fern’s journey, smiling as she performs a demonstration for the camper crowd, flinching when her treasured plates shatter and sitting still, nearly teary-eyed as she wanders the world around her aimlessly and in despair.

At the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, or “RTR” for short, a campfire conversation emerges; each of the participants’ faces glows warmly against the flames as they reminisce on lives lost and journeys began. Viewers are left feeling present among the crowd, experiencing the flows of conversation in real time under the hiss and crackle of the fire. Not long after the poignancy, vignettes of road travel and campside songs buoyed by piano swells, viewers are jolted back to reality. In due time, everyone said their “so-longs” and hit the road in a whirlwind of dust and tire tracks.

Photo provided by Nomadland @nomadlandfilm/Twitter

The film’s cinematography draws on the color palette of American rural living: pastel pink and lilac lavender sunsets and crisp, cool blue desert nights reflect the tones, tastes and memories of the world before Fern and the nomad community at large. The soft, bright colors of the natural world starkly contrast the blank, neutral bore of hospital rooms, restaurant kitchens and commercial living seen in the slew of day jobs and one-off shifts worked by Fern and her friends. The staggered, documentary-esque filming of the movie closely parallels the cinematic sentiments of Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project (2017)” or Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade (2018).” 

In “Nomadland,” every new day is a renewed struggle to survive, getting by in scrapes of self-sufficiency and hard work. For many, vandwelling and nomadism is an escape from the entrapments of corporate, capitalist America. “Nomadland” seems less of a film and more of an experience — the universal experience of loss, survival, hope and friendship. Here, it’s the little things that taste the sweetest. Vulnerable and affecting, Zhao’s portrait of a life spent braving bitter cold spells and dry deserts, battling financial turbulence, and ultimately being left to the fringes of society, is as heartwarming and bittersweet as the character it observes. 

Mia Hammett is an Entertainment Intern for the winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at hammettm@uci.edu.