‘NOMADLAND’ is an indie film written, directed and edited by Chloe Zhao, a Chinese-born director who moved to the U.S. and studied film production at New York University. Her first two films, “Songs My Brother Taught Me” (2015) and “The Rider” (2017), both got nominated in the Independent Spirit Awards and did well in the arthouse circuit. “Nomadland” won best drama film in the Golden Globes and is now nominated in the Oscars.
“Nomadland” is her third film, based on the 2017 non-fiction book of the same title by Jessica Bruder, and it’s universally praised by those who’ve seen it. After this, she’s going mainstream next year in Marvel’s new movie, “Eternals”.
As the title indicates, “Nomadland” is about people who choose to live in RV (recreational vehicles), moving around and always on the road. It stars two-time Oscar best actress Frances McDormand (“Fargo”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) as Fern, a woman in her 60s who lost her husband and also her job after the gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada where they worked closed down in 2011.
Fern then leaves the town where she has lived for many years, sells her things and gets an RV that she herself drives. She leads a nomadic life traveling alone in the American West and finding work where it’s available. She meets other nomads wandering like her and they have formed their own network in their journey that never really ends.
She makes friends with Linda (Linda May, a real life nomad) who takes her to a commune led by Bob Wells, a real life person who acts as a guru for other nomads and has his own Youtube channel. They teach her survival techniques while living as NPAs (no permanent address.)
When her van has a flat tire, she asks the help of Swankie (another real life nomad) to drive for her so she can buy a spare tire. They become good friends and Swankie confesses that she has cancer, but she refuses to be confined in a hospital and just wants to make more happy memories while traveling.
She finds another friend in David (David Strathairn), who works at Badlands National Park. When he gets sick, Fern visits him in the hospital and they later get to work together in a restaurant in South Dakota. You’d think romance will brew between them, but David’s son arrives to say his wife will give birth and he wants David to meet his grandchild. Fern tells him to go.
When her vans breaks down, she needs money for repairs and goes to her sister who lends her what she needs. Her sister wonders why she prefers to stay away from her relatives. She later visits David in his son’s house and he confides that he has feelings for her.
He asks her to stay but she declines and chooses to leave again. The last scene shows her driving away, hitting the road once more to be the nomad she prefers to be. As Fern says, she’s houseless, but not homeless. Critics just loved this movie. Praising it to high heavens. But honestly, we CANNOT relate with it and with Fern and friends.
But we cannot and we won’t judge them. Maybe they really enjoy the life of mobility that they lead. But in our case, we just love being with caring members of our family now that we’re in our old age. And we prefer having clean toilets, running water, and the comfort zone of our very own bedroom where we can just laze around and loaf in bed all day. In the end, each of us has to live life on our own terms. Walang basagan ng trip.
The film is a very quiet one. Direk Zhao often treats it more like as a documentary with the camera simply following Fern and her fellow nomads. We viewers are mere observers and she gives us an immersive character portrait of Fern and other lives that are so unfamiliar to most of us. This is her tribute to them.
She also manages to inject some social issues. Fern gets to work in an Amazon warehouse where she packs orders for people with fixed addresses. During this pandemic, Amazon’s online selling has truly gotten so much richer while other businesses, simply because people won’t go out and will just rather online.
Through all this, Frances McDormand gives a serene performance with her merging totally with the landscape and her co-drifters who choose to be outsiders from the usual society or community as we know it. She’s totally believable and even has a full frontal nude scene which, as far as we’re concerned, is gratuitous and not really necessary. But what do we care if she chooses to expose her pudenda?
But we honestly do not have any sympathy for Fern or her kindred spirits. We don’t understand the choices they make, but we respect and accept them. After all, it’s their personal choice so, if and when its disadvantages confront them, then, just suffer the consequences. The film works as a study of a restless character and the lifestyle she prefers, but would you like to try it? No, thanks!