Review: ‘Nomadland’ (those who wander)

Houseless is not homeless.

Following the American Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, the town of Empire, Nevada disappears almost overnight when the US Gypsum plant closes. Unemployed and alone, Fern (Frances McDormand) sells off most of her belongings, buys a conversion van, and sets off to travel the country in search of seasonal work. It isn’t long before Fern connects with a network of other van-dwelling nomads, many of whom are organized and advised by Bob Wells, framing the lifestyle as a freedom instead of a perceived penance. While some go until they can’t and others seek the first opportunity of a return to societal norms, Fern must decide what she truly wants for herself.

Anyone not having heard about this 2020 shoo-in for the top awards — directed by Chloé Zhao based upon the book by Jessica Bruder — will be the only ones surprised come Oscar night. With fifty-plus awards already collected and near-universal buzz about what makes this story so compelling, the only thing left is convincing the masses this film is a must-see event. Told in a documentary style with a fictional character interacting with true-life personalities playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, it feels both real and relatable… and nary a superhero in sight. But as a character piece, it all comes down to a single decision: what is best for the individual?

The story of how the film came to be and who made it are as compelling as the film itself. There are no good guys or bad guys, no conspiracies or global catastrophes; it’s just people getting by as best they can and helping one another as they’re able or willing. Few can argue that RVing isn’t a lifestyle — or inexpensive — but this is a world of travel, opportunity, recycling, and making do, where funds aren’t unlimited and work is where you find it. Showcasing the good and the bad without judgment, it feels like a peek behind a forbidden curtain ironically hidden in plain sight. In a life where a busted auto part, a simple medical issue, or missing a storm warning can end in anonymous death, it’s a different tale of conquering the West: self-reliance as a way of life where the destination is making it another day.

The cinematography is exceptional, especially for audiences coming off of a travel-restricted global pandemic — wide vistas and open road featuring landmarks of the Midwest. Some of the establishing shots of Fern’s wanderings appear both lonely and compelling, a trade-off of sorts and not for the feint of heart. There’s also a resistance to accepting help and knowing when to trust, especially in the perceived cost of creating a relationship that feels needfully reciprocal, resisting the formation of connections for safety’s sake. It’s like surviving in a voluntary apocalypse, avoiding the trappings that weaken one’s resolve and thinking only as far ahead as necessary.

There’s a underlying question that haunts Nomadland: could you sever all the ties that bind you in one physical place, buy a used van with a few amenities, and hit the road, never exactly sure where it will lead or how you’ll end up? Most will say no, but a few will see the advantage, feel the pull, and consider the possibility. Almost a decade after the setting for this film, banking has become virtual, the internet is mobile, and technology seems more capable of serving modern nomads like never before… but could you do it?

Nomadland is rated R for some full nudity and dreading that inevitable knock on the van’s door.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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