There are several ways to interpret the award winning Nomadland. Your interpretation is likely to have an impact on your thoughts about the movie.
You can see it as the story of one woman’s journey to overcome loss and grief and determine her own destiny, set in the world of nomadic Americans.
Or you can see it as a movie about these nomads, mostly older Americans with limited incomes who live in their vans and travel the country looking for seasonal work, as told through a fictional story.
If you choose the latter interpretation, you’re likely to leave feeling a little sad and dispirited. On the other hand, if you see it as a personal growth story, you’re unlikely to be as affected.
The movie is based on the factual 2011 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, written by investigative journalist, Jessica Bruder. She spent a year with America’s nomad community. Several of those people featured in her book also appear in the movie. Indeed, there are only two professional actors in Nomadland – Frances McDormand and David Strathairn.
McDormand’s character Fern is a 61-year-old who has spent her life in the gypsum mining town, Empire, with her husband Bo. The death of Bo and the decision by the mining company to close the mine and the entire town, including all housing, leaves Fern without a house to live in and no job. (While Fern’s story is fictional, the 2011 closure of Empire by US Gypsum is factual.)
She decides to buy a van, which she carefully kits out with the necessities, and heads to an Amazon warehouse where seasonal workers are employed during the Christmas period as part of the company’s CamperForce program.
Here she comes across a number of men and women in similar situations including Linda May who encourages her to join a large gathering of van dwellers in Arizona, organised by Bob Wells.
Wells, a YouTube guru on the practicalities of van living, also runs Rubber Stamp Rendezvous where nomads learn the skills needed to survive on the road and can socialise with like-minded travellers. Skills include changing tyres and successfully using a bucket as a toilet within your van.
At this camp we learn the backstories of some of the nomads as they tell their stories, creating a documentary type feel to the movie. Interestingly a number selected by award winning director Chloé Zhao (The Rider) choose to live this way, loving the freedom of being on the road and having no commitments.
We also do hear from others forced into the lifestyle as a result of the 2008 recession (the movie is set in 2010). Typical of this group is Linda May who, after spending her entire life working and raising her children, discovered when she reached her 60s and lost her job that her Social Security benefit was $550 a month – an amount impossible to live on.
The movie then follows Fern who, like fellow nomads, spends the next year travelling around America’s north west taking whatever employment she can get. This includes working at a rock quarry, a food processing plant, a restaurant and at a trailer park as a camp host. It’s here she again meets Dave (David Strathairn), who was also at Bob Wells’ camp. It’s clear Dave has feelings for Fern and when he agrees to return to his son’s family home he asks Fern to join him.
It’s one of several offers Fern receives. Another is from her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) who lives in a very comfortable house in suburban Denver.
Having such options is one of the reason why it’s easy to see Nomadland as more of a personal growth story than a documentary on America’s fringe population of financially stretched homeless older people. Fern has choices and sees herself as “houseless” not “homeless”.
The performance of both McDormand and Strathairn are highlights of Nomadland. Given neither of their characters are great talkers both need to rely on their acting skills to express their feelings. For McDormand those feelings encompass determination, sadness, grief, stubbornness and empathy. Hearing the true nomads telling their stories adds to the movie’s believability.
The scenery is another highlight. The Badlands of South Dakota, the Nevada desert and areas of Pacific Northwest all feature as we follow Fern on her journey of discovery and recovery. There are plenty of beautifully shot sunrises and sunsets and empty vistas.
The cinematography reinforces the feel of Nomadland as a quiet, reflective, slow burn movie. There aren’t any dramatic plot twists, there’s no imminent danger to anyone and the nomadic community is a supportive one. It’s this lack of drama which brings to the fore the situation Fern and her fellow nomads find themselves in.
It’s easy to see why the movie has won numerous awards, including most recently the Golden Globe awards for Best Picture Drama and Best Director.
Nomadland is showing in Australian cinemas from March 4.
*Photos courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
- movie, review
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