“Nomadland” reflects the America beneath the surface

Streaming recommendation of the week 3/5/21

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Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“Nomadland” stars Frances McDormand as Fern in this American story of poverty and persistence.

Shreyas Banerjee, A&E Editor

America is a beautiful country. From coast to coast, there are millions of wonderful places to visit, beautiful sights to behold and kind people to meet. Yet behind it all, there’s a strange despair at the core of the country that pervades everything. As our economic conditions and political realities have shifted, many lives have been upheaved and seemingly left behind.

“Nomadland” is the story of one of those lives, following a woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) after her life completely falls apart in the aftermath of the Great Recession. After the mine that supports her entire town closes down and the town becomes subsequently abandoned, Fern is forced to become a nomad: someone who lives out of their van and goes from state to state seeking temporary work and then moving away when the job ends. As she goes through the American west over the course of a year, we see her struggle to maintain her own dignity and self-respect while dealing with the daily toils of being in abject poverty.

Through the journey, we see one beautiful American locale after the next, accompanied by a calming soundtrack that creates a numbing, relaxed viewing experience. There are no heroes, nor villains in this film. In fact, there’s barely a narrative at all, rather just a character and her reality of subsisting from one day to the next. Under Chloé Zhao’s direction, the film transforms from simply a story of an average woman making her way through America into a stirring, almost hypnotising visual piece. Gliding between shots, the film forgoes the typical hallmarks of a drama, focusing on characters rather than situations. One experience blurs into the other as Fern goes from place to place, meets various people from different backgrounds and generally just exists on the road.

All of this is made possible by McDormand’s strong and nuanced performance. She has a seeming knack for playing regular, down-to-earth people, and she pushes that trait to its greatest extent playing Fern. A restless yet grounded person, who strives for acceptance but is also too stubborn to accept help, McDormand’s Fern reminds us all of someone in our lives. 

At the same time, Fern is emblematic of the American spirit; her life as a nomad is directly compared to the old pioneers. As she lives off her van and on the road, we see someone diminished from a former glory, someone proud and individualistic but also striving for a greater community, someone full of smarts and candor but also too stuck in their ways to truly change. Fern is America, and so is everyone else she meets and interacts with, for better or worse.

As she goes across the country, she meets people like Mary, her coworker who encourages her to join a group of RV dwellers headed up by the Santa-like Bob Wells. Bob eventually guides Fern and introduces her to other “nomads” such as Swankie, a woman at peace as she approaches the end of her life. Indeed all these people are trying to come to terms with the fact that they were left behind by the land they hail from and forced into their current existence. Sometimes they touch on this, with Bob commenting on how economic conditions have forced the working man into “work horses being put out to pasture.” 

However, at other times, the film seems to be too shy to touch on the root issues behind it all, never taking much of a stand on the stark income inequality and poverty prominent within the film. While some may consider this a missed opportunity, it serves to show this oft-overlooked angle of poverty in America. The socioeconomic themes are implicit, even if they aren’t necessarily the focus. By choosing to frame the film as simply a set of encounters and events, it paints a picture of human impermanence and futility that all can understand, while still serving as a subtle social commentary. Now that the film has recently won the Golden Globe for best drama picture, its platform to spread its message is all the bigger.

“Nomadland” chooses to show America at its best and also at its most head-scratching. The sheer dichotomy between the beauty and the despair present in the country is maddening, but the film also reminds us all of the common human experiences that bind us all together, particularly when they’re all we have left.

“Nomadland” is streaming on Hulu.