There are a number of reasons that inspire one to travel- to visit relatives, to go on vacation, or to even hold a job. Yet, when one typically travels, there is a destination in mind. To travel without a destination implies placelessness, perhaps a lack of connection to the outside world; or, worse yet, confusion or a lack of hope. Fern (Frances McDormand) experiences some of the prior in Nomadland, yet her time spent on the road provides catharsis that slowly illuminates itself over the course of the film.
Today, and especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, to travel without a destination- or specifically to live in one’s van or RV and pursue a nomadic lifestyle- is less and less of a bizarre idea and more of… a reasonable undergoing? Prior to living in her van, Fern and her husband lived in Empire, Nevada, a small town that primarily exported gypsum. When the factory closed, the city became a ghost town shortly thereafter. With the death of her husband and her life upended, Fern decides to live in her van and travel the American West, picking up little jobs here and there, rather than establishing residency in a singular location.
For those new to the concept of “van life”, this way of living is explored by both the young and the elderly. If done right, van life enables one to save money, and thus the lifestyle is pursued by those who are limited on cash, such as Fern. Some embark on van life to disconnect from the churning inequity of capitalism while others (typically young people) instill within their van a sense of luxury and glamour- constant travel and contemporary technology enables this lifestyle to be a comfortable one. And money aside, others choose van life to fulfill their dreams of traveling the country.
Of course, with limited space and such a markedly different lifestyle compared to the norm, there are a number of misconceptions regarding van life. There is a myth that the experience is a very isolating one and that those who participate in it may be antisocial or discontent with traditional social structures. However, a simple search will reveal communities and conventions dedicated to van life, and there is a strong sense of togetherness amongst van lifers. Given the challenges of converting and living in a van full time, the community is very helpful to those new to the experience, and one can find almost any question about the lifestyle answered in detail online or someone who can answer it in person at conventions.
We see these kinds of bonds formed between Fern and a number of women at an RV convention, as well as with a young man she lends a light to that she crosses paths with twice. As Nomadland points out, in van life there is no such thing as goodbye- there’s only ‘see you down the road’. With great mobility, one is never forced to say goodbye to newfound friends. And to many, that is comforting. When a friend, Dave (David Strathairn), a former van lifer, takes a liking to Fern and offers her a home, she declines. Though she began van life primarily due to the loss of her husband and the fateful collapse of Empire, through nomadhood itself Fern finds catharsis.
Filmed across a breadth of locations, the beauty of America is showcased by Zhao and her recurring collaborator, cinematographer Joshua James Richards. The duo capture a naturalist glance at America rather than portray beauty that seems constructed as part of a film set or created in the editing suite. Despite the vast beauty displayed in Nomadland, the film’s characters outshine all the landscapes captured on camera. Chloé Zhao’s filmography thus far has been dedicated to telling stories of America that aren’t as familiar to many audiences- the coming of age story of an adolescent who has to decide whether to leave his tribe, the rehabilitation of a rodeo star who may never perform again, and now the story of a woman who travels across America after losing everything that was dear to her. With Nomadland, Zhao finds yet another deeply intimate story that resonates as part of the human condition.
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