Nomadland, the 2020 film by Chloe Zhao, is an adaptation of the novel by Jessica Bruder. Despite its modest budget, the film was a commercial success and met with critical acclaim picking up several awards including the Oscar for best director, film and best female in a lead role.
The title seems like a paradox given that nomads don’t traditionally inhabit any permanent location, but the film attempts to bring such disparities together, offering its nomads a sympathetic and affirmative space. The itinerants in the film occupy marginal geographical areas but perhaps more interesting are the emotional and psychological spaces they inhabit. What superficially seem like fringe locations attract an eclectic group of people and what they form is the basis of a community; rich, diverse and grounded in the humanity of those coming to terms with loss and grief and exploring its ramifications in less than conventional ways.
Central to this idea is the protagonist Fern. Having lost her husband and then her long-time job at a gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada she tries to find whatever work she can. In the short term, this is satisfied through a seasonal job at Amazon and followed by a series of other short-term employments. As these jobs lead her further away from ‘home’, Fern purchases a van in which she also decides to live. Fiercely independent, any assistance from other nomads is initially met with recalcitrance but with time this softens as experience demonstrates that needing help, rather than being a weakness, can prove life affirming and allowing people into her life deeply enriches rather than impoverishes it.
Nomadland is not about homelessness, involuntary or otherwise but is about a conscious choice by those who endeavour to live adjacent to established norms. What shines through, is the director’s sympathy in bringing to the screen sensitive characters with rich veins of feeling as they embark upon frontiers of existence largely foreign to most of us. At times desolate, there is a strange and haunting poignancy to the film. Terrific performances and locations make this an exquisite film.