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Movies essentially began as a way to experience things we could not experience in person. Especially before air travel, movies were the only way for people to see how others lived in other parts of the world. As technology and transportation evolved over the last hundred-plus years, the necessity for film to provide such an experience has diminished on a grand scale. However, being able to relate to people we know nothing about on a smaller, more personal level is still necessary.
With the media all but running our world, dictating our own scope and trying to standardize our views, it’s often those just outside of our peripheral vision that seem to be the least understood. As long as empathy is something that can be improved upon in our society, film will perennially serve that purpose. We’ve seen a steady and sturdy rise of low-concept indie dramas over the past few decades arrive to fill the void, the best of which not only help us to live in someone else’s shoes, but find the common thread that unites us with them.
Director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a chance for viewers to relate to somebody they may have never met, yet somebody within our very own country and society. Based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction novel, it depicts the life of a woman, Fern (Frances McDormand), living as a nomad while traveling across the American southwest in her van. Her former home of Empire, Nevada was home to United States Gypsum Corporation, which folded in 2011, resulting in the entire town closing for good. This led to over 750 people forced to relocate and find new jobs…during the recession.
Now competing with everyone else from Empire who’s also lost their jobs, Fern sells most of her belongings to purchase a van to live in after her husband passes away, traveling neighboring areas to find seasonal employment. She begins working at an Amazon Fulfillment Center where she meets Linda (Linda May), another van dweller who encourages her to join her at a desert gathering of fellow nomads, which can provide a community and support system for her. Fern, who we learn is very self-willed, reluctantly goes.
While many directors use large brush strokes to paint their pictures, Zhao prefers stippling, planting seeds here and there, focusing on every little detail while putting together her cohesive and deceptively large parable of sorts. The film doesn’t give in to traditional plot points, but also doesn’t stubbornly refuse them either. Much like its subject, Nomadland wanders a lot, going from place to place, never accomplishing much, but still holds our attention entirely.
Its documentary aesthetic makes the story seem cobbled together from various candid footage, but it’s all scripted. Zhao achieves this forthright depiction by hiring real life nomads to play fictionalized versions of themselves.
While most filmmakers use a minimalist world as a crutch, Zhao is actually making important decisions within those confines. Likewise, the stark landscape isn’t an artistic choice here, but an inherent guideline for this story that conveniently allows the audience to ponder alongside the protagonist.
Zhao doesn’t really use any obvious tricks with her direction. She doesn’t try to compensate for her slice-of-life meandering and lack of traditional narrative structure with obsessive symbolism or emphasized irony. Instead, we’re left to observe for ourselves with the master illusion that the camera isn’t even there. The filmmaker uses closeups sparingly, saving them for the more intimate and vulnerable moments throughout the story.
Not every movie necessarily needs for the writer and director to be the same person, but in cases like Nomadland, it definitely helps to deliver certain objectives. Where most good screenplays strive for a certain pocket between representational and a clean succinctness, Zhao errs on the side of the former, her dialogue often fumbling with clunky, albeit natural, takes that challenge us to find the poeticism underneath.
Despite the “controversial” decisions made by its protagonist, Nomadland isn’t cynical in its approach. Fern, along with most of the rest of the nomads, isn’t a nihilist. And there’s a definite spirituality exuding from every frame of this film, from the beauty highlighted through the majestically picturesque desert scenery and the relentless use of natural light even though most scenes take place at sunset. Fern singing “What Child is This?” to herself in an opening scene informs us right away the film is grounded in an appreciation for life and the inspiration found in the struggle for happiness.
Frances McDormand is one of the rare actors who excels at both representational and presentational types of performances. Here, she practices the latter, conveying more emotion through her eyes and mouth than most people can do by using actual words and actions. Whether it’s the subtle difference between her several types of smirks, or a simple glance that she gives off camera, we always know what she’s thinking and, more importantly, what she’s feeling. McDormand makes it look easy, but her biggest accomplishment here is how she appears to fit right in amongst a group of actual nomads.
Nomadland is a relatively subtle character study. Fern’s change isn’t big, but meaningful for her own healing process. She isn’t necessarily bitter towards society, but keeps hanging on to her life with her husband, now deliberately creating a rift between her former world and her new one.
The film takes an observational viewpoint of the relationship between people and their possessions, drawing a divide between things of monetary value and what’s actually important – often what life gives us for free. Swankie, one of Fern’s best friends, is given months to live and sells off her stuff ahead of time. It’s implied she does this to fund one last trip back to Alaska where she grew up, but we can tell that it’s done as more of a ceremonial sendoff to these relics from her past. The audience is continuously reminded of how these objects are ultimately meaningless. What we grasp to the tightest are the things money can’t buy.
The more we learn about Fern, the more we understand her own relationship with things and possessions. She gives away everything to leave society behind and be free, but is yet too stubborn to give up what means the most to her: her wedding ring, a dish set her father gave her, and her van. Two are symbols of the two most important people in her life, and the other of her own new independence and limitlessness.
But Fern soon learns that there are always limits, no matter how free you think you are. As we become immersed in the nomad community, we learn that living life as a nomad is a choice for most of these people, whether it’s to cut ties with their past or to obtain a sort of insouciance that our society can’t always accept or cater to. These van dwellers understand the “tyranny of the dollar,” as one fellow nomad puts it, and are trying to escape from it. But as much as they strive to live the simplest life possible, they can’t. Not only tethered by their actual possessions, which, too, slowly erode away by the unguarded and capricious nature of life in a van, but by their actual need to survive.
These people travel with the weather, taking seasonal jobs to pay for essentials, and only essentials. You see, even living life in its most simplest form doesn’t get much support from a minimum wage job. So they must still work, and the freedom they desire can never quite exist exactly how they want it.
Moreover, society needs them to work. The country depends on these people, an irony we’re reminded of by Fern’s winter job at the Amazon warehouse, packing and shipping out products to millions of people. She could be preparing items for you or me, or perhaps for the 1%.
If you really think about it, nomads aren’t all that different from you and me after all. And I think that’s the point of Nomadland. Despite a desire to live outside the fringes of society, they’re only escaping their previous circle – whatever they wanted to leave behind. Now they find themselves in a different circle, but still a circle nonetheless. They still have to work for what they want, but their minds can be at ease knowing that it’s on their own terms – or as much so as the rules allow. We’re all driven and powered by the same inherent rules of society after all (hence, the tyranny of the dollar). By the end of Nomadland, the experience not only gives us a better understanding of a certain type of person living right here in our own country, but Zhao is able to connect us with them on a personal level within her film as well.