Review: Nomadland (2020)

“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

Coming-of-age films have proven consistently popular for decades. From Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to Lady Bird (2017), seeing characters growing up is a universally recognised journey that audiences love to follow. In literature, the equivalent Bildungsroman is equally as favoured and goes back to the 19th century with protagonists like Pip from Dickens’ Great Expectations and Jo from Alcott’s Little Women being just a couple of examples (combined, these novels have been adapted for television and film over 35 times). Normally, these stories consist of a narrative which focuses on a character who is on the cusp of adulthood – someone experiencing a sudden spurt of emotional growth through profound, transitional life events. It is true that one’s teen years are among the most important when it comes to shaping a person – or in film, a character – but what happens after that transition? What happens as adulthood starts coming to an end?

In Nomadland, Chloe Zhao presents just that. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman who is coming of old age. She already possesses maturity, grit and life experience, but as we see through her story, there is still much to learn, people to meet, and places to be explored. The passing of her husband combined with the 2008 recession and subsequent housing collapse has caused financial difficulty for Fern, who leaves her town called Empire (an ironic symbol if there ever was one) with very little to her name. Her move from an academic tutor to a modern-day nomad living in a converted van (affectionately named Vanguard) is representative of a whole transient subculture of senior Americans and it is this next stage of her life that we see playing out - and this chapter of her life is only in its infancy. Just like those accounts of youthful characters falling into maturity, Fern’s story as she navigates life without the supposed security of four fixed walls is just as daunting and exciting – even more so if you consider that it is based on a revelatory travel book.

At the start of the film, protagonist Fern meets a woman who has the words to Morrisey’s song ‘Home is a Question Mark’ tattooed on her arm: “Home, is it just a word? Or is it something you carry with you?” which initiates thoughts about what we consider home. For Fern, home has recently been redefined and instead of being something that she carries with her in the form of items or people, it’s the vessel which carries her from one place to the next. In a conversation with a concerned ex-tutee, Fern assures her that she is not homeless, but houseless – there’s a difference, and she’s not the only one who is choosing to live that way.

Concern from others is a device used by Zhao to explore the views of the general public (i.e. the conventionally housed) towards the nomad community. Many a worried glance is shot across supermarket aisles and at any opportunity to speak to Fern alone, well-meaning friends and acquaintances offer shelter and unwanted sympathy. Living in Vanguard is the only way that Fern can acquire her version of freedom; staying in another family’s spare room is simply not something she is open to.

The different perspectives about the nomadic lifestyle are otherwise delicately expressed. Some may consider Fern’s approach to living as alternative or unusual but when she meets a group of fellow retirees and older adults choosing to live out of their motorhomes, it is clear that she is not alone in wanting independence and adventure later in life. There is a whole community of people living in ‘Nomadland’ just like her, and they are happy doing so (even if it does mean seriously hard-graft, intense labour and becoming 'gig workers' now and again). Circumstances suggest it may not have been their first choice, and an upgrade or two wouldn't go amiss, but it doesn’t seem such a strange decision to up sticks and escape the rat race in exchange for the modest and peaceful existence we see through beautiful cinematography and alluring landscapes. Why stay put in a lifeless town when the entire American West is right there waiting to be explored?

Zhao is certainly interested in the social and economic context of this 'slice of life', but instead of dwelling on what should be, the onus sits firmly with the central character study to prevent unpleasant politics permeating every scene. Ultimately, real people and their stories matter more than the notion of an unrealistic utopia. Like her roaming comrades, what Fern has and what she cherishes the most is her own freewill and the ability to travel the open road; she is liberty personified. She represents a forgotten generation who refuse to give up in the face of adversity and decided on a covetable course of action within their means in order to enjoy the latter stages of life in the best way they can. Resultantly, this creates an impactful realisation of the difference between being alive and truly living. Coupled with expansive American plains and wide shots of gorgeous mountainous scenery, this is what makes the film so glorious.

Some of the most tender moments of the film arise when Fern is speaking to her fellow temporary campmates – sometimes in solitude and other times when sat around the fire pit contemplating life. One such highlight is when a friend explains how her dad spent his life working so that he could buy a boat he was never able to use because he got ill before he could take it out on the water. The anecdote continues as she states that her boat is out here in the desert, not on her driveway – she is seizing each day while she still can. It seems that for many people, it has taken a death in the family for them to realise they are living to work for corporations in a broken society where the wrong things are valued, instead of for themselves. Though sobering, it comes as an affirmation to Fern that she is following the right path. There is reassurance for the audience the further down the road she goes too – in a scene with nomadic friend David at some sort of zoo or sanctuary we see a childlike innocence and playfulness in Fern for the first time; the retitence in her eyes and voice lift as we are shown a moment of pure joy. It is apparent that the open road and the people she meets on it provide a lease of tranquility and simple pleasure in an otherwise unjust world.

The authenticity of Nomadland comes first from the fact that it is based on a work of non-fiction: Jessica Bruder’sNomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century’, second from McDormand’s eye-wateringly amazing performance, and third because it stars real-life nomads. The beauty of Nomadland is twofold: audience members within a certain age demographic will finally see a film where the majority of the cast are of a similar age to them, while younger audience members gain an insight into a period of human life that we are not often privy to on screen.

A film about poor old people who have lost all of their savings has the potential to be devastatingly depressing. Zhao never forgets that sociological viewpoint, but instead focuses on an individual woman in pursuit of a life lived on her terms. Nomadland is an introspective reminder of our mortality, an offer of an alternative future and a warning about where we place value in society. It's a film that will give you life, no matter your age.


Verdict: The American frontier has never looked so dreamy. Chloe Zhao's stunning third feature about a forgotten generation will leave you bewildered. If the story and the cinematography doesn't leave you awestruck, Frances McDormand's performance will.

Overall? ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬🎬

Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡💡

Study-worthy? 📚📚📚📚


Watch the trailer for Nomadland here:

Recent Posts

See All