Every time I see a van or RV parked on the side of the road, my curiosity lead me to how the inhabitants got there and why. Yet, I’m ashamed of the way I would silently judge. Don’t act like you have never done the same. Not my finest moment in life. Yet, I was reminded of a time when my family traveled up and down the highways of America as a child moving from state to state depending on what orders had been given to my military father. We weren’t by any stretch of the imagination nomads, but being on the open road and experiencing life and America in all her beauty is an experience unique unto itself.
Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada and the death of her husband, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. When I tell you that McDormand is giving a career best performance I kid you not. I literally say that every single time I see her on screen. She has the uncanny ability to land in role portraying women with a fired dignity wrapped in awkwardness making her characters relatable, raw and human. However, there is something so incredibly nuanced, quiet and unsettling about her as Fern that leaves you wanting more as you see that van going down the road one more time.
In her third feature, director Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) could find herself making herstory this awards season with NOMADLAND. Adapted from the Jessica Bruder book of the same name, (named a New York Times Notable Book winning the 2017 Discover Award and was a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Prize and the Helen Bernstein Book Award), Bruder spent months living in a camper van, documenting Americans who gave up traditional housing, hit the road full time traveling from job to job carving a place for themselves in a wicked economy. The project spanned three years and more than 15,000 miles, coast to coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.
Real life nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades provide the film with the type of authenticity you can’t put a price on. the camaraderie around the campfires, being there for each other when needed the most and honoring the fallen is the stuff America is made of. Yet, living life on the road comes with its challenges emotionally, financially and health wise.
Nomadland hits so close to home now, with COVID-19, business shuttering, lives being lost, food bank on the rise and an economy that is once again far from being stabilized. Yet, the film is laden with moments the permeate your emotions to the core like when you hear Fern reciting Shakespeare while simultaneously watching her scroll through slide of a life and home that no longer exists. The insatiable desire to couple up with fear looming that he too could leave you alone once again. The little things in life like going to a zoo, doing laundry or having a bite to eat provide surprising comfort and joy during a time laced in uncertainty.