When I sat down with my husband to watch Nomadland, released last week on Hulu, I expected a bleak portrait of near-homeless Americans disadvantaged by an ever-widening economic disparity. Co-produced by and starring the brilliant Frances McDormand, I was willing to go on the journey, and connect to the pain of a disenfranchised population.
The film is a multi-layered work with plenty to say. Some will see it as a paean to independent spirit, and the primal appeal of the open road to those who refuse to be settled. And while it’s true that economic hardship creates the underlying conditions of struggle, a few intriguing scenes suggest deeper issues.
Nomadland neither blames nor proselytizes. It paints a vivid picture and allows us to meet the story with our own conscience and values, and if we are willing, reflect deeply about the intersecting threads of economic pain, personal grief, and the nature of independence.
But equally disturbing is the culturally sanctioned denial of pain, causing so many to be left behind emotionally.
Much has been written about the contributing factors resulting in a growing, marginalized population left behind economically. It’s a very real problem demanding our attention. But equally disturbing is the culturally sanctioned denial of pain, causing so many to be left behind emotionally. This theme is more subtly woven into the narrative.
Spoiler Alert. You may wish to see the film before continuing.
Fern is a middle-aged widow whose small Nevada town has evaporated after the central employer went bust. She gets seasonal work at an Amazon fulfillment center, does what she can to make ends meet, living in her van. A local family offers her a home with them, but she refuses.
When a friend invites her to drive south and join a nomad community also living in their trailers and vans, Fern initially declines. As temperatures drop, she eventually makes the trek. Shared resources, nightly songs around a campfire, and a caring tribe leader suggest this may be a viable option for her, but when the caravan moves on, she stays behind. She scrubs toilets at an RV park, works at a drug store doing food prep, even heads to South Dakota to shovel beets, anything to eek out a meager existence.
Part of writer-director Chloé Zhao’s genius is that most of the characters are actually real people playing themselves, offering an authentic glimpse of the nomad lifestyle and the people who choose it.
Part of writer-director Chloé Zhao’s genius is that most of the characters are actually real people playing themselves, offering an authentic glimpse of the nomad lifestyle and the people who choose it. She gets out of the way, allowing their heartrending personal stories to add grit and gravitas. I expect this will emerge as a new category of filmmaking, a hybrid of fictionalized documentary.
The story takes a turn when Fern’s van breaks down. With no alternative, she visits her previously unmentioned sister, accepting a loan, but declining an invitation to live with the family.
Repairs complete, she heads to California to visit David, a man with whom she shared a dance early in the film, and later an extended connection. Previously part of the nomad life, David has decided to stay permanently with his son’s young family, including a newborn grandchild. Fern is warmly welcomed and invited to move into the guesthouse. Small moments of father and son playing a duet at the piano, scattered children’s toys, and a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner show a home of genuine warmth and affection. Fern remains detached.
Might it be that for those whose pain and grief has never been addressed, a carefully constructed wall of separation has become an imperative of self-preservation?
Here we begin to suspect that even when offered support and stability, Fern cannot or will not receive it. Is it truly her preference, a personal ethos of fierce independence? Or might it be that for those whose pain and grief has never been addressed, a carefully constructed wall of separation has become an imperative of self-preservation?
The most stunning moment of the film occurs when David must leave the room for a moment, asking Fern to mind the baby. She urges David to hurry back and not leave her too long. The contact seems compelling yet unbearable for Fern as the infant falls asleep in her lap, its tiny hand resting in hers. At daybreak, she takes a last look at the house, climbs into her van and drives away without thanks or farewell.
What conclusion are we meant to draw? To this viewer, it seems that Fern cannot allow herself to vulnerably feel love. Small acts of everyday kindness are acceptable, creating a modicum of surface connection without threatening to topple the wall. But anything deeper appears threatening. Maintaining the fortress around her pain supersedes any straining desire for greater ease, comfort or community.
Denied vulnerability is an urgent cultural epidemic. How many of us have truly been taught to cope with grief, or with the shame and profound hurt of abandonment by a person or system we believed would support us?
While Nomadland will most certainly be discussed as a vivid portrait of economic struggle, or the resilience of the human spirit and its need to be set free to roam the natural world, its quieter, more heartbreaking theme is the tragedy of emotional isolation. While she is physically capable and intellectually sharp, Fern’s emotional fragility is clear. She is far from free. As always, Frances McDormand’s complex portrayal is riveting.
Denied vulnerability is an urgent cultural epidemic. How many of us have truly been taught to cope with grief, or with the shame and profound hurt of abandonment by a person or system we believed would support us? How many have buried pain, walled off and protected, limiting the amount of love we are willing to receive?
McDormand’s Fern is an Everywoman more relatable than we may want to believe.