In the form of a shoulder tattoo, Nomadland challenges us with a line from Morrissey’s lyrics: “Home, is it just a word, or is it something you carry within you?”

In her latest docufiction, writer-director Chloé Zhao expands on the meaning of home through the wanderings of Fern (Frances McDormand). As a fictional but unassuming character, Fern engages in dialogue mostly with real-life nomads acting as themselves. Stunning shots of the American West landscape are interrupted by scenes of a mechanical Amazon warehouse, a mockery of our modern-day absurdity.

Inspired by Jessica Bruder’s book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao brings to screen a colorful portrait of perpetual wanderers. Having moved from Beijing to England to New York to California, Zhao knows nomadhood herself. Her love for road trips may have sharpened her sensibilities in capturing the otherworldly beauty of the Midwest, also evident in her previous feature, The Rider. With any luck, the Chinese-American director — having made an impressive festival run so far — may well be the first woman of color to be nominated for best director at the Oscars.

Fern, a widow from a Nevada mining town called Empire before its ZIP code ceased to exist, bounces from job to job in her camper van. But amid her transient lifestyle she is not entirely isolated. She meets a community of van dwellers, some of whom embarked on this journey after the 2008 financial collapse.

The van life portrayed in Nomadland is far from the millennial version of glamorous camping. Most of the nomads are in their 60s and 70s without a retirement fund or a house to return to. But they’re not in the least spiteful toward a dysfunctional American society. Rather, their self-perseverance reveals something more innately human than a picture-perfect life.


Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand on the set of Nomadland.

Against the backdrop of deserts and mountains, the film captures small moments of humanity in the absence of capitalist luxury. A seven-gallon tall bucket, for instance, works as a better toilet for people with bad knees. Nomads can also have their dietary preferences like veganism and a distaste for cilantro. Haircuts, line-dancing, and “spa days” are also part of the van crew’s routine.

One of Fern’s friends and mentors, Swankie, tells of her enlightening encounters with nature’s wonders in a captivating monologue. Facing the imminence of her death, she simply wishes for her fellow nomads to commemorate her with a bonfire funeral.

Fern’s vagabond life on the road is also complemented by several interactions with people in more settled circumstances. In one instance when Fern visits her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith), who lives a conventional, staid life, she critiques the obsession with homeownership: The American benchmark of success ironically hinges on buying “something you can’t afford and go into debt” — and spending the rest of your life paying for it.

The film strikes its high note when van life guru Bob Wells consoles Fern by sharing his own feelings of grief. To encapsulate the spirit of Nomadland, he says there’s no final goodbye in this lifestyle, but rather: “I’ll see you down the road.”

Arriving at major film festivals during a time of heightened alienation, Nomadland offers a quiet salute to human connection. At a drive-in theater in New York, I leaned my head out of the car, my eyes fixating on Fern’s scenic ride accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi’s poetic score. The autumn breeze brushing against my hair felt as if I was taken along on this road trip punctuated by moments of euphoria.

A brief journey shared in the length of a feature film — whether it’s with the characters or other viewers at the theater — might be Zhao’s prescribed antidote to the long loneliness.

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Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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