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  • Schuyler Beltrami

Nomadland – A Story of America’s Forgotten Wanderers

Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, and receiving international accolades as well, including earning the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Nomadland is a raw and beautiful look into America’s wanderers.

Frances McDormand as Fern in "Nomadland" (Photo:

There are times when watching the film Nomadland that you are not sure if it is a documentary or a normal movie with actors. The filming is clean and crisp, but at the same time there is a “fly-on-the-wall” sense to many scenes. Many of the actors appearing in the movie are not actors at all, but real people who crisscross the United States in their vans and mini-campers looking for work or some healing experience as the sun sets on their lives. The film follows Fern, played by the always wonderful Frances McDormand, an older woman who lost her job when the company mining town of Empire, Nevada was shut down by the company who ran it, US Gypsum. The town where she once resided with her now-deceased husband has been turned into a ghost town with nearly no inhabitants. With no husband and no town, she decides to purchase a work van and travel the country looking for work. She sells nearly all of her possessions and spends the profits in outfitting her tiny van to be comfortable enough to live in as she travels through the American West looking for work. One of the very first jobs she finds is working at an Amazon Fulfillment Center and what is so unique about these scenes is that they are filmed inside an actual Amazon Fulfillment Center. The audience views a morning safety meeting through the eyes of Fern, and we see her packing boxes and putting on shipping labels of actual Amazon purchases. Neither a condemnation or a commendation of Amazon or its work practices, the realness of these scenes is the first to make you question if you are watching a documentary or not. But this job with the world’s largest retailer is only a seasonal job, and after the Christmas rush is over, Fern is once again back in her white Ford Econoline van looking for some sort of employment. Along the way she stops at a variety of campgrounds and gas stations where she can sleep during the long, harsh nights of Rocky Mountain winters. It is during her time at Amazon that she meets Linda May, a real-life vandweller played by Linda herself. Linda is just one of many real-life vandwellers who occupy the story around Fern, adding a realness to the story that was very refreshing to see. Linda tells Fern about a man named Bob Wells, a fellow vandweller, who hosts a large community of vandwellers in the Arizona desert and Fern agrees to follow Linda there to meet Bob and his community. It is here where the deep emotions of the movie begin to play out. As if the audience was sitting in the seat next to Fern, we witness a fireside chat of community members along with their host Bob as they recount their life stories of why they are now permanent nomads. Nearly all the stories include some sort of loss: A loss of a job, of a family member or perhaps even of one’s sanity and reality. These stories make it abundantly clear that these vandwellers may have voluntarily made the decision to pursue this life, but the circumstances which led them to such a drastic decision were anything but voluntary. Bob Wells (whose YouTube channel about vandwelling has nearly 500.000 subscribers) and his real-life vandwelling community tell their real-life stories only in a way that they can. The stories are not being replicated by actors, but by themselves and their raw emotion and feeling comes through with every word. While watching the film, I wondered how these real-life nomads felt about having a multi-Academy Award winning actress like Frances McDormand with them in their community, as she and renowned actor David Straithairn are really the only two actors in the entire movie. Straithairn plays Dave, a fellow vandweller and one-sided love interest. Dave is immediately struck by the indomitable and headstrong Fern and strikes up a friendship with her. Their paths cross multiple times, most notably in South Dakota, where both Fern and Dave take jobs at Badlands National Park as camp hostess and volunteer park ranger, respectively. As their stories become intertwined, Fern is never able to fully relinquish her nomadic lifestyle. There are glimpses when it feels like she might finally be breaking back into society, only to fall back again, such as one scene where upon being invited to spend the night in one character’s house (no spoilers), she is unable to fall asleep in a normal house with a big bed and a regular roof and escapes outside to the friendly environs of her cold, cramped van where she is finally able to sleep soundly. As the movie ends, Fern returns to the now desolate Empire and revisits the house where she lived with her former husband and walks around the abandoned mine which the town was built around, before getting back into her van and hitting the road again.

Nomadland is not a typical movie, but at the same time is an all too typical story in America. Director Chloé Zhao impresses with her usual cinematographic style, where instead of a narrative arc of a beginning, middle and end, Nomadland is a collection of small snippets and episodes each coalescing around each other to form a story, a story that is rich and deep and meaningful and almost poetic. Although Frances McDormand and David Straithairn give their usual incredible performances, the truly incredible performances come from the non-actors, the normal people who have been compelled to choose this nomadic lifestyle. In an age where people are obsessed with technology and comfort, these forgotten Americans have nothing but a van, tremendous amounts of courage, and a strong sense of community. Nomadic lifestyles have become a sort of glamourous trope on social media, with self-styled nomadic influencers living their #vanlife for the world to see. These influencers produce crisply shot Instagram posts of them frolicking on a beach or hiking a mountain, while talking about how they found freedom and a deeper connection to life as they decided to give up their overpriced studio apartments in Burbank and Brooklyn for a 1968 Volkswagen bus with a peace sign on the front hood. What these van influences have glamourized, Nomadland shows in its reality. Most people who live in their vans and small campers are not 20-somethings with sponsored Instagram posts, but instead are everyday Americans who have fallen off of the edge and are clamoring to get their lives back. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging on, America finds itself in the grips of the worst economic situation since the Great Recession of 2008, and while most people will soon be able to get their jobs back, put money back into their savings and retirement accounts and go on family trips, still others will not be able to. Just like what happened in 2008, those who were teetering on the edge of economic freedom before the downturn, will find themselves on the other side when all is “back to normal”. The people featured in Nomadland have never found their way back. They work minimum wage jobs in different cities and states around the country, accepting whoever will accept them for whatever pay they can find. Through it all they hold on to their dignity and their sense of humanity, as they find strength in a community sharing a common pain. There is no happy ending in Nomadland, there are only brief episodes of happiness bookended by moments of extreme loneliness and loss, but through it all the nomads persevere as they search for somewhere to call home.

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