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Nomadland subverts the American Dream
film review

Nomadland subverts the American Dream

3 min. 21.05.2021 From our online archive
A widow in her sixties finds meaning outside suburbia
Frances McDormand is the lead character in Chloé Zhao’s masterful Nomadland
Frances McDormand is the lead character in Chloé Zhao’s masterful Nomadland
Photo credit: -/20th Century Studios/Biennale

By Emma Pirnay

Director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a masterfully graceful depiction of the American Dream in decline. Frances McDormand - who also stars in the much-acclaimed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – plays Fern, a widow in her sixties who packs up a van to leave her home in Empire, Nevada. 

Through a quiet, melancholy journey across the American West, the film reimagines the road movie, showing the impact of the 2008 housing crisis on everyday people in America who live their lives outside the public eye.

A newcomer to van living, Fern joins a community of nomads in Quartzsite, Arizona. Having travelled many different roads – on the map as well as in life - they meet each year at a desert rendezvous known as Burning Van, a play on the better-known Burning Man festival that celebrates self-expression for people with more money. At this two-week event, the travellers barter, cook meals for each other and share tips on van maintenance. Some are nomads by necessity, such as older people left behind by society. Others are there by choice.

While economic collapse may have been an incentive for Fern to move, she is also mourning her husband, who has just died. Instead of falling back on her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) – who disagrees with her choice – Fern opts for a vagrant life. She is no longer interested in the suburban “good life” and feels estranged from her family. Freedom is her priority.

McDormand, as ever, delivers an honest performance. Her character is stoic and resourceful. There are scenes of harsh realism, where she’s shown working a number of precarious jobs, packing boxes in an Amazon logistics centre, cleaning bathrooms as a camp host at the Badlands National Park and scraping grease off a grill in the Wall Drug diner.

Despite the bohemian vistas the name “Burning Van” conjures up, living in a van isn’t pretty. Fern spends entire nights without heating, eating her meals huddled up in a corner. But she is emotionally attached to the vehicle - affectionately naming it Vanguard - and to her newly established nomadic lifestyle. When she bumps into one of her former students, she insists that “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. It’s not the same thing.”

Out in the desert, tires can go flat, and water can run low. And despite Fern’s hardiness, she is not without her vulnerability or need for connection. She builds friendships with people she meets on the road, such as Linda (Linda May) and Dave (David Strathairn). Nomads rely on each other for survival, and Fern finds that the meaning of home is not where you are – it is the people you live with that are more important. The film’s realism is deepened because it includes non-professional actors - real-life nomads such as Charlene “Swankie”. 

Rejected by society, this is a tribe for whom solidarity is paramount. Bob Wells – also an actual van dweller who runs the desert rendezvous in real life – says that although he has met hundreds of people on his journey, he never says a final goodbye, just “I'll see you down the road.”

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards lets the viewer enjoy the sparse and awe-inspiring landscapes of America’s West. We see Fern running through the Badlands National Park with childlike energy, touching the majestic trees in California’s redwood forests. But her lack of money also threatens her joy in experiencing these brief moments of natural beauty. Bills add up and when her van breaks down, her journey comes to an end.

Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, this is a quintessentially American film. Set in the same landscape where hundreds of western movies were shot, Dolly compares Fern to a pioneer. It’s an easy comparison to make, but Fern rejects the label. 

The film subverts the familiar symbols of the American Dream that abound on her travels. The places she visits once promised prosperity, but are now ghost towns. Entire parking lots, gas stations and cinemas are scattered across the country, sitting empty. For Fern that is not the point. Her journey is about finding the strength of the human spirit regardless of material wealth.

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