I’m still pretty far behind on recent Oscar winning films. I barely watched anything during the various lockdowns as I much preferred something lighter and sillier during that period. Thankfully they’re all becoming widely available now, which makes catching up really easy. The other day I remembered that this was on Disney+ and decided it finally was time to watch it. Yes, I’m extremely late to the party but let’s not worry about that too much. What matters is that I’m watching it at all.
It’s not news that Frances McDormand is an absolute genius but it should be mentioned again here. Nomadland is built on her strong but subdued performance as Fern, a woman who is living in her van. Like many other people of her generation, Fern found herself in a difficult position after the 2008 financial crash. She lost her job, her home and her husband in one go. So she made the decision to trick out her van and live on the road. Her nomad existence is based around driving around the country and picking up seasonal work. Along the way, she meets many other people in a similar situation who help each other survive.
The film was inspired by Jessica Bruder’s book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. It was also influenced by Bob Wells, a big name in the area of minimalist lifestyles. Wells appears in the film along with several other real-life vandwellers. It is one of director Chloé Zhao’s masterstrokes as it adds a sense of realism and provides more of a naturalistic feel. These non-actors have a very charming and strong screen presence, which melds really well with McDormands own performance. In a sense, this ends up being something of a documentary with the actor being placed in the heart of a very real community. Zhao manages to mix fact and fiction together beautifully to allow the story to be told with a real grounding in reality.
On the surface, this might sound like a depressing story that paints a terrible picture of modern life. That these are the victims of the crashing economy who have been forced into a tough situation. However, none of the people we meet along the way would consider themselves a victim. Fern, in particular, finds independence and freedom in this lifestyle. We see her refuse offers of help and suggestions that she consider early retirement. Instead she drives on and finds more work. She may be houseless but she is not homeless. Finding her community of likeminded individuals means she is not without a family and she has support and care when she needs it.
Rather than wanting us to pity the people we meet, Zhao’s is a love letter to this community. Yes, it shows the ups and downs of this lifestyle. It certainly doesn’t shy away from the practicalities of living in your van. However, it celebrates the people who have chosen this was of life. It presents them as they really are and understands where they are coming from. It’s a truly beautiful and heartwarming film that I wish I’d seen earlier.