“I’m not homeless. I’m houseless. Not the same thing, right?”
That’s a question permeating, unspoken and spoken multiple times throughout Fern’s (Frances McDormand) new life in Chloe Zhao’s sophomore feature Nomadland. What makes a home? What makes a house? What happens to those who live on the edges?
Nomadland follows Fern, a rural Nevadan and recent widow who has fashioned her van (affectionately named “Vanguard”) into a living space. She plans on moving from place to place, living off temporary blue-collar jobs to keep her afloat. Despite offers from family and friends, Fern is keen on keeping up the lifestyle. She eventually finds a group of similar-minded people, all living lives at the bare minimum at the mercy of America’s landscape. Equipped with RVs, the world is their oyster. Nothing can tie them down.
The cinematography is stunning. Barren flatlands and rocky fields feel like a different planet, alien from the America we’re familiar with. Despite that, it doesn’t feel hostile or unbearable. It doesn’t feel homey either. We’re coaxed into its familiarity over the course of the film. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards (who also shot Chloe Zhao’s first feature The Rider) is more interested in the faces of those inhabiting the land, capturing tender moments of solitude and strength in vignette-like sequences.
Frances McDormand is magnetic here. She’s a tour-de-force that brings a quiet strength that matches perfectly with the film’s unassuming nature. McDormand’s performance blends seamlessly with the non-actors; she never feels like a fish out of water, an A-list celebrity among the unknown. Zhao brings back her penchant for casting the people that surround the real life story, adding to the grounding realism of Nomadland’s mythology. Real life nomadic personalities like Bob Wells, Linda May and Swankie are companions in Fern’s journey, touchpoints that colour her new life. It’s also easy to mistake David Straithairn, who plays McDormand’s love interest, as a real-life nomad. His endearing affection for Fern’s hard exterior allows the audience to see cracks in Fern’s hard shell. Even so, Straithairn knows McDormand is the star here, allowing her to shine in their scenes together.
Zhao isn’t trying to make some grand statement about capitalism, but it’s inevitable that it eventually seeps into other people’s commentary on Nomadland. When you have a character that shuns what is typically sought after in the canon of Western cinema, it’s inevitable that talk follows. But Fern and by extension, Zhao, isn’t here to make an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ statement. There’s no waxing poetic about “being one with nature”. Sure, there are some moments where the experienced nomads speak highly of the lifestyle, but it’s more of a necessity to the plot rather than a glamorization. It’s not bent on selling you a philosophy or lifestyle. Rather, Nomadland is more about the individuals who choose it and how they decide to take it by the reins. It’s refreshing to see a take on a different American dream that doesn’t shove an idea down your throat.
The American Dream is inherently ingrained in the country’s capitalist, patriarchal culture. It’s clear from the get go. The aim is the white picket fence, two kids, nuclear family and the big house. If you’re lucky, maybe you get a career you love that’ll last you until retirement. Nomadland isn’t here to challenge that idea, but more so ask you to think about what life can look like outside of that. That perhaps, in the fringes of the forgotten, something beautiful can bloom.