Film & Television

Golden Globe-Winner ‘Nomadland’:
On the Road to Nowhere

If you Google #vanlife, you’ll find countless stories (and photos) of people who have opted out, choosing to leave the rat race for the freedom of the open road. Some are bloggers. Some are surfers. Some have corporate sponsorships, golden retrievers, and enviable tans. Vanlife, like “the gig economy” and “tiny home nation,” represents  a contemporary utopian ideal. ‘Tired of working for the man? Hit the road, eschew all things bourgeois, and be your own boss. It’s rebellious. It’s romantic. It’s nice work if you can get it.

And it’s definitely not what Chloé Zhao’s powerful, Golden Globe-winning film Nomadland is about.

Fern, the film’s heroine, doesn’t blog or surf. She doesn’t even have a dog. And, while she lives unconstrained by middle class mores, it’s not by choice. Fern is one of thousands of people who have slipped through the cracks of the American Dream. She’s a byproduct of the “Great Recession,” and while both Nomadland’s production and the 2017 bestseller by Jessica Bruder upon which it’s based predate 2020, one can only imagine that there are now even more people living out of cars and vans and mobile homes than there were pre-pandemic. Nomadland exposes the largely unseen and certainly ignored margins of America.

When the film starts, title cards introduce us to Empire, Nevada. The economy of Empire, a company town, is based entirely on the fortunes of U.S. Gypsum, a sheetrock mining operation. At one time, Empire had its own airport, golf course, and public swimming pool. In 2011, when demand for sheetrock disappeared, so did the town. U.S. Gypsum closed its doors and evicted its workers from company-owned homes. In a stunning act of revisionism, the USPS discontinued its zip code. Today, Empire is a ghost town. 

The extraordinary Frances McDormand stars as Fern, one of Empire’s ghosts. Her late husband was a miner, and she worked in H.R. and as a substitute teacher. Widowed and in her early 60s, Fern is unable to retire on the scanty benefits she would receive if she did so. She is also displaced. When she runs into a former student and her family at Walmart, the child tentatively asks, “My mom said that you’re homeless. Is that true?

Fern clarifies, “No, I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?” She reassures her, “Don’t worry about me. I’m okay.”

Having purchased and efficiently outfitted a used van, Fern puts nearly all of her posessions into storage. The film follows her first year as a modern-day rover. She works when and how she can: at an Amazon holiday shipping center, as a host (read, restroom cleaner) at a campground, beet harvesting, making sandwiches. Along the way, she meets other nomads, outsiders like herself who form an always moving (in both senses of the word) community.

Bruder’s book project began with her 2014 cover story for Harper’s, “The End of Retirement.” Building on that experience, which focused on aging Americans who couldn’t afford to stop working, she traveled in a van (cleverly nicknamed “Halen”), chronicling the lives of itinerants, including a 64-year-old woman named Linda May who was living out of a Jeep in order to save money to build a sustainable house for her children and grandchildren. Linda May, along with another wanderer, Swankie, as well as Bob Wells, who has become a de facto guru to the growing numbers living on the road and off the grid, all appear as versions of themselves in Zhao’s film.

Although Fern’s character is fictional, her plight is familiar to many. Retirement benefits, if and when they’re available, cannot keep up with the cost of living. As Linda May explains, “I went online to look at my Social Security benefit. It said $550. Fern, I had worked my whole life.” 

Vanlife is an economic necessity for many. Other members of the community seem to have dropped out because of family issues or health concerns. Swankie tells Fern why she’s continuing to travel, heading up to Alaska. With a terminal cancer diagnosis, she yearns for a time when she felt at peace and unafraid “Come around the bend, was a cliff and find hundreds and hundreds of swallow nests on the wall of the cliff and the swallows flying all around, reflecting in the water so it looks like I’m flying with the swallows and they’re under me and over me and all around me. And the little babies are hatching out, and eggshells are falling out of the nest, landing on the water and floating on the water, these little white shells. It was like — it was just so awesome. I felt like I’d done enough. My life was complete. If I died right then in that moment, I’d be perfectly fine.”

In real life, Swankie has been on the road for a decade. She recently talked to Variety about how her movie debut had affected her. “I felt more love from Fran and Chloé and the film crew than I felt from my own biological family. I can never really show my gratitude for that.”

Nomadland is enriched by genuine respect for — and awe of — its subjects. If the American spirit is personified by hard work and resilience (rather than material consumption and reality TV fame), it is here in abundance. By choice or by necessity, the nomads live a life of independence, although they count on each other for support, whether they’re passing along a tip about temporary seasonal work, demonstrating how to patch a flat tire, or explaining what size tub is best for a portable makeshift toilet (it depends on both the size of your vehicle and the state of your bowels). 

While Fern is friendly, willing to help, and even to talk about her circumstances. She grieves the death of her husband and the loss of the small but treasured life she led in Empire. But, given the opportunity to settle down, she rejects it. This happens twice in the film. When Fern visits her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) for a loan to repair her van, Dolly urges her to stay but defends her choice (and optimistically refers to Fern and her nomad compatriots as “modern-day pioneers”). Later, an endearing fellow drifter, Dave (Oscar-nominee David Straithairn), gently suggests that she live with him. It’s tempting — and as an audience, we want her to say “yes” — but she can’t. Or she won’t. Either way, she doesn’t.

This past weekend, Zhao became the first Asian woman and only the second woman of any race to win the Golden Globe for directing. The first was Barbra Streisand (for Yentl, 1984), who tweeted yesterday, “It’s about time! Congratulations Chloé! Well deserved!” Zhao’s film (which she wrote and edited as well as directed) is beautiful to watch even as it uproots any lingering idea that this country is the land of opportunity or that if you work hard enough you’ll be safe and taken care of. Fern does stop to admire the vast vistas of the American West, but the very real need for food and gas and the next gig is always there.

Nomadland’s willingness to shine a light on a shadowy alternative lifestyle and its use of non-actors make the film uniquely relevant and emotionally affecting. So does McDormand’s understated but intensely present performance. She may well win her third Academy Award for it, tying with Meryl Streep and Ingrid Bergman, and just shy of Katherine Hepburn’s four-win record. 

While there has been a small renaissance of parts for older women in recent years, too often they are comedic, using the mature woman’s awkward sexuality as the butt of every joke. (See Book Club, and nearly every other movie Diane Keaton has been in lately.) McDormand was pleased to represent such a real and grounded, although “houseless,” character.

An outspoken champion of inclusion, she spoke up at a press conference for Nomadland last fall. “What if I had looked in the mirror, unable to recognize myself as the women who are being represented in fashion magazines and movies? What if that had stopped me? That’s a lot of ‘what-ifs,’ but part of the American Dream I got to realize was working with people like Chloé Zhao.” If Zhao can repeat her Golden Globe win at the Academy Awards later this spring, she’ll make history again.

As a contemporary take on — and, in some ways, as heartbreaking as — The Grapes of Wrath, Nomadland is phenomenal in its own right. But, like many other women-led or independent films, it probably benefited from a year when box office receipts weren’t the only measure of a movie’s worth. Watching Nomadland on a small screen actually adds to its intimacy, and its message is all the more powerful when absorbed from the comfort of home.

For those of us lucky enough to have one. 

Nomadland is available at select theaters or to stream on Hulu. 


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