Winner of three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, Nomadland arrives on Blu-ray in Canada today. Based on Jessica Bruder’s novel, Chloé Zhao’s critically acclaimed film centres around Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who finds herself living the nomad life after the factory where she worked closed. The life blood of her former Nevada hometown, the closure not only crippled the entire community economically, but was the last piece of string tethering her to the rural town after her husband passed.
Now “houseless”, as she corrects one concerned friend who questions her homeless state, Fern lives out of her van and takes seasonal work at Amazon and other places when the opportunity arises. Finding her people amongst the other wanderers who make up the various van and RV communities she encounters, Fern learns survival tips and makes deep bonds of friendship, that while fleeting, allow her to make profound realizations about herself.
While the cold nights, constant potential threat of danger or arrest loom, as she squats her van in various parking lots overnight illegally, there is a sense of freedom that she refuses to give up. As one dives deeper into Zhao’s patient and lyrical film, it becomes clear that Fern was never meant to stay in one place for long. The expectations of regular society, including settling down in a home you will one day retire in, are far more suffocating than the cramped confines of her van. Fern is a person who needs a type of freedom that many do not understand, one that allows her to truly take in nature and see people on a human level rather than a material one.
Outside of some plates her father gave her, Fern’s material possessions are locked in a storage container like a time capsule she is not quite ready to bury. When she goes to visit her friend and fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn), at his son’s lavish home, there is a noticeable discomfort the minute she arrives. While Dave has happily found himself within the social constructs of what one assumes a grandfather should be, and wants her to join him, the trappings of such a lifestyle are too restricting for Fern. It is not only a reminder of the stifling parts of her past, but the grief that is intricately woven within it.
Zhao’s eloquent film not only reflects on the difficulty of letting go of those who are no longer with us, but also reshapes the notion of the American dream. Many of Fern’s fellow travelers, Zhao casted real-life nomads giving the film an almost documentary feel, have their share of stories related to a corporate mindset where hard work is rewarded with either pink slips or a retirement that one does not live long enough to enjoy.
What makes the harsh, but honest look, at the forgotten casualties of the pursuit of capitalism so jarring is that Zhao juxtaposes these discussions with shots of Fern quietly taking in nature. Whether exploring rock formations on a trail or taking in the RV community at dawn as the sun begins to slowly rise over the horizon, Zhao constantly allows the viewer to contemplate the world through Fern’s eyes. A world that seems foreign at first, but relatable once the trappings of society are completely striped away.
It is through the protagonist’s eye’s that Nomadland brilliantly finds both its soul and its compassion. By the end, Fern’s journey is not about finding a place to plant roots, but rather one where she can spread the seeds of friendship and humanity while living on her own terms.
Bonus Features: The Forgotten America, Deleted Scenes – Lunch Interrupted – A Gift from God, Telluride Premiere Q&A with Frances McDormand and Chloé Zhao