“I’m not homeless, I’m houseless… Don’t worry about me, okay?”
Story: Fern is 61 years old, and picks up seasonal work at the local Amazon warehouse. She lives out of her van, because the company tract house she used to live in closed down…along with the gypsum plant in her all but empty town of Empire, Nevada. So she decides to head to an RTR (Rubber Tramp Rendezvous) to check out the nomadic lifestyle, and meet some of the people who call their vehicles home.
Genre I’d put it in: Dramas That Feel Like Documentaries
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
Gotta say: I wanted to both sit with the after-effects of this film for a while, and immediately tell everyone that they needed to see it. So here I am, in my jim-jams, tapping out a review that I hope will tempt you into spending two hours on the road with these characters and people.
But first, a bit about the nomads of this film. These folks aren’t of the “hashtag VanLife” persuasion. No social media influencers here. These are individuals that for one reason or another – underemployment, loan debts, disgust with big business, or one bad day during a horrible recession – took to the roads to live as Grapes of Wrath-esque migrants. They move from job to job, going where their longing takes them, and where they can find work. When the stars align, both meet. Their lives are hauntingly beautiful, breathtakingly minimalist, and while they can be filled with happiness, it’s not an easy life one would pick on a whim. This is a whole world that I figured was probably out there – I’ve always heard about folks traveling the country and their RVs and such – but it’s still so new to me. It’s a mix of hope, and heartbreak. It touched my soul. With me? Cool.
Director Chloé Zhao cast both well known actors and real-life folks in this film, something she’s done in her prior works. And every real-life nomad uses their real first name as their “character’s” name. That lent a truthfulness to the story I kept trying to balance with my knowledge that this was indeed a fictional tale. The way Zhao filmed in real nomadic locations, within campers, vans, and RVs, and at seasonal locations like Amazon, beet farms, Wall Drug, and more? Well, I often wondered if there was even a screenplay, as these scenes felt almost too naturally put-together to be anything but unscripted. But it’s a testament to Zhao’s direction – and the powerful performances by the ensemble cast – that Nomadland packs such a realistic punch. It feels like a documentary framed by a dramatic narrative device. And I was sucked in immediately.
What really hit me was the heartbreak that starts Ferns nomadic lifestyle. Here, in “the greatest country in the world”, there are so many individuals for whom the “standard-issue” American Dream is out of reach, and/or a complete joke. We watch as Fern struggles to maintain self-sufficiency, trying her best to stay in a town that’s crumbling around her, with no job prospects and a steely determination to pull herself up. Nomadland isn’t a political movie, but I couldn’t help but think about how so many decades of various governmental ebbs and flows (on both sides y’all) brought so many people to their knees. That these nomads make the best of their situation speaks well of them, but doesn’t absolve our country of the shame it should carry for forgetting about these people.
Nomadland is a powerful film. It’ll break your heart, patch it up again, and then have you misting up at the beauty and savagery of our world. Yet, in-between the gut punches of the real life stories echoed in this film, there are glimmers of hope. Bartering between nomads. Sharing food, or a cigarette, when there’s precious little to go around. Perhaps we all need to be a little less corporate and a whole lot more nomadic in our way of looking at life, and our place in it.
There’s so much more that could be said about this film and how it spotlights the plight of so many – and the whole “there but for the grace of God” thing too – but I’ll leave you with this. Be kind y’all. And give this film a look.
Grade: 5 out of 5 stars
#Protip: Read the book. I’m gonna.