Final Verdict: A somber and reflective film with great performances, but more resolution and character growth could have made it truly great.
About The Film
Nomadland shows a lifestyle that many of us are not familiar with. Adults, with more life behind them than ahead of them, living in vans or small RVs, traveling between different western American locals, looking for temporary jobs and campsites. These people seem down on their luck and looking for purpose, but with deeper examination we should be able to see how similar they are to us. Their struggles and their joys ought to be familiar.
Frances McDormand leads the way in this movie. She already has two Oscars to her name and may very well have a third soon. Her performance drives it all. Her character, “Fern”, is a widow in wandering. McDormand balances the warmth of a kind person, with the guardedness of a hurt soul. She says little, but her face says much.
The greatest attribute of Nomadland is its realism. This movie has a genuineness that is rare to see. This attribute is achieved partially through its scenery. The rural western landscape brings you along on the road trip. But the realism is most profound in the cast of this film. Aside from McDormand’s “Fern” and David Strathairn’s “Dave”, most other characters are real nomads, played by themselves. Their performances are great because they’re not doing much performing. They are true, just as the setting is true. It feels like a documentary at times.
The movie asks many questions but gives few answers. If you’re not into smaller scale arthouse cinema, then Nomadland likely isn’t for you. This film is both beautiful and frustrating. Fern doesn’t always do what we want her to do, and the ending is ambiguous. This movie has lots of craft and character, but little plot. All this is clearly intentional on the filmmaker’s part, but that doesn’t mean it always works.
Nomadland has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It is available to stream on Hulu.
Profanity: S-word, blasphemies, and other mild profanities are used.
Sexuality: Main character is seen bathing nude in a lake for a few seconds. It’s not portrayed in a sexual way.
Violence:None shown. Suicide is discussed.
Engage the Film
The nomads have a very strange life. They are constantly on the move, yet they also seem quite content with what little they have. Their lack is actually seen as freeing. They don’t begrudge their station. Their separation from traditional American society is seen as a blessing. Their stories ought to remind us of the different circumstances people can find themselves in. Not all people have homes to live in or families to care for them. In difficult situations we can find joy in simple pleasures and our daily bread. Excess does not necessarily lead to happiness.
Loss and Reconnection
Death is discussed frequently. The hope of seeing lost loved ones again is mentioned, but no reason for that hope is given. Sadly, God and faith are quite absent in this story.
Fern is dealing with the loss of her husband. She is trying to move on, but she can’t let go. Fern keeps running into Dave, who tries to be a good friend, but she keeps him at arm’s length. It’s seems as though she is so hurt by loss that she fears reopening her heart. This made me think of what C. S. Lewis said in The Four Loves:
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
The saddest thing about Nomadland is that Fern doesn’t open her heart. She doesn’t seem to grow at all as a character. But perhaps that’s the case for some people. Grief is usually a slower process than we’d like it to be. Maybe after the credits roll, Dave will reach out again. Perhaps years later, she won’t be afraid to love again.