Nomadland won two of its four nominations at the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards, first for Best Drama Motion Picture, then later in the night for Director of a Motion Picture. This makes director Chloé Zhao the first Asian woman and the second woman to win the award throughout the award show's history. While originally Zhao received praise in China for this success, the tide quickly turned against her when some of her criticisms against the Chinese government resurfaced online. The question of whether the film’s release in China will be stopped is still up in the air. Regardless, Zhao's Nomadland stands on its own as a testament to her craft, wholly separate from her political controversies.
The film follows Fern, played by Frances McDormand, a 61-year-old widow who makes the decision to live a nomadic lifestyle. Fern not only copes with the loss of her husband, but also with the loss of her entire town, Empire, Nevada—one of the many towns whose Gypsum industry died as a result of the Great Recession. As more and more people leave Empire, the zip code is discontinued, and Fern leaves with nothing to make her stay. Fern starts out with help from her friend and real-life nomad Linda May, who shows her the ropes of van-dwelling and introduces her to the community of nomads around the country. Fern and Linda May, like many other nomads, take short-term, seasonal employment at different places around the country, like campsites or Amazon Warehouses. Despite her strong bond with Linda May and a few others, Fern struggles to make connections with others, nomads and settled-people alike. However, the few connections she does make are meaningful and genuine. Fern learns to accept occasional companionship as necessary and gratifying.
Most of the people portrayed in the film are in some way constrained in the lives they are able to live. While van-dwelling may not be their first choice, many have decided it is more fulfilling and beautiful than any alternative. In this way, Zhao defends the nomadic lifestyle. Fern constantly encounters people who simply don’t understand her choice and see van-dwelling as a cry for help. It is viewed by Fern’s friends and family as eccentric at the best of times, and incomprehensible at the worst of times. Still, as Fern meets more nomads, the rationality of their lifestyle reveals itself.
Chloé Zhao uses non-actors to explain the events that often lead nomads to hit the road. Some were forced to make the lifestyle change because of financial pressure and the inability to afford a house; many of them experienced some significant loss, turning to nature and the wandering life as a way to grieve. Almost every single one became disillusioned with traditional life, its greed and corruption, and the way it made them grovel and abandon dignity, only to receive nothing in return. The nomadic way allows them to live on their own terms. They describe nomadic life as a “healing journey,” a way they can finally “be at peace.”
Subsequently, yet contrary to the image most people have when they consider nomads, the majority of nomads are old. They’ve lived almost all their lives playing by the rules and expectations of traditional society and have come to the realization that it is something they have little desire to be a part of for their remaining years. Much of the film is about telling the story of the people that tend to be relegated to the back of our collective consciousness: the elderly, the disenfranchised. Nomadland tells the audience that sometimes these people make a purposeful choice to withdraw from society at the same time that it chooses to deny their place in it.
One of the most touching stories told in Nomadland is that of Bob Wells, another real-life nomad who helps others begin their van-dwelling lives on his YouTube channel, CheapRVliving. He, like many others, is attempting to heal from the loss of his son. In Bob’s own words, he is trying to understand “how [he could] be alive on this earth, when he’s not?” By helping others, especially those who are grieving, he honors his son. Bob has helped to build a sense of community among the nomads, a community that helps each other and is understanding of each other’s struggles. Bob’s favorite part of the nomadic life is that there is no “final goodbye.” They meet hundreds of people in their travels and they inevitably, at one point or another, find their way back to each other again. Bob finds comfort that in this same way, he “can look down the road” and be certain that he will see his son again.
Nomadland is remarkably refreshing. Fern’s story isn’t linear; she often struggles with life on the road, whether with isolation, employment, or car troubles, but she never wavers in her decision to live nomadically. While Zhao introduces a potential love interest for Fern, it is apparent that Fern is still grieving the loss of her own husband and needs the freedom of van-dwelling that this new man can’t offer. The acknowledgment of a healing process for a female protagonist that doesn’t rely on romance in a Hollywood film is uncommon, but entirely welcomed.
The film is unique in its unapologetic realism, undoubtedly because it is largely based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction novel Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. This authenticity differentiates it from the hundreds of stories of nomads and wanderers that have captured the American imagination for centuries. Zhao masterfully contrasts the imposing-yet-beautiful western United States with moments that are utterly human, in ways that are often undignified. The film, for all its gorgeous mountains and deserts, is not portrayed as an exciting adventure. It’s simply a life; any novelty comes from its rarity, rather than the lifestyle itself. Zhao emphasizes this fact through her use of non-actors; their emotions and struggles are real, as well as many of their stories, experiences, and profound outlooks on life.
Nomadland isn’t light-hearted, or the thrilling adventure one might expect from its subject matter, but it truthfully considers the nomadic life. It refuses to sacrifice its authenticity for its audience’s amusement, but for that reason, it remains compelling and a must-watch.