“Nomadland” grounds us and reminds us the value of living in the now

Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao and based on Jessica Bruder’s book, is a captivating story of a woman’s journey across America and becoming a modern-day nomad in the post-Great Recession era. While the the film explores the issues of poverty and the consequences of economic failure, its true magic lies within the amazing stories that Fern (Frances McDormand) hears throughout her voyage, and the strong relationships she builds. Nomadland, in its most prominent aspect, teaches us the value of living in the now.

Fern, a recently-widowed woman who’s abandoned her old life to travel the country as a nomad, meets people similar to her, taking small jobs wherever she can. We meet Swankie, who teaches Fern a variety of things that everyday nomads ought to know. Fern also bonds with fellow nomads (most of whom are played by non-professional actors, real members of the nomad lifestyle), including Linda May, Bob Wells (an American vandweller who lectures others on a minimalistic and nomadic lifestyle) and Dave (David Strathairn), another fellow nomad who presents himself as a potential partner, a means to settle down again.

Linda May and Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

One of the most unexpectedly effective components of Fern’s quest is the significance of fleeting, seemingly unimportant moments in her life. We see Fern exploring canyons with Dave, Swankie teaching the main character everything she knows, or a young man asking Fern for a cigarette and engaging in a light, rather introductory conversation. He’s with a group of young people travelling in a bus; he, like Fern, is on his own journey, where the details are unimportant save for the fact that they’re going somewhere. Fern gives him a lighter; “I’ll be seeing you,” he says. It’s such a trivial moment, but the last words carry a promise. The two are crossing paths only for a moment, but it’s clear these little moments are the reason they’re both out here.

The scene that also stayed with me was Fern celebrating New Year’s Eve alone in her van. It’s night when Fern lights a single sparkler, while wearing a  “Happy New Year” tiara.  When the time comes, Fern starts waving the sparkler, twirling, laughing, and shouting, “Happy New Year!”. It’s a simple scene, but it makes you want to be right there with Fern celebrating the new year. It’s a scene that’s forced me to ponder my previous celebrations with family and friends: when our life gets tough, and we need something to lean on, we come back to those memories of simple connection with others. Fern’s alone, but not really; we’re right there with her. Like the nomads, we’re alone together.   

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Over the course of her travels, Fern re-learns how to live and experiences newfound happiness caused by seemingly insignificant events. Zhao infuses the simple task of Fern learning how to change a tire with unexpected import. Just dancing with her new friends, or going with Dave to the zoo and marveling at the animals she sees, we get to live in the joy of the mundane along with her.      

The story of Nomadland is a humbling experience to myself and makes me think about my own past life experiences. It helps me appreciate seemingly inconsequential moments between me and my relatives or friends. In the perspective, they are the ones that I come back to the most.

Nomadland also showcases the crucial importance of human conversations and bonds. Especially now, when the worldwide pandemic forced the entire world to stay home, isolated within our bubbles, the simple beauty of human interaction isn’t lost on us. We’ve spent a year in Zoom meetings, interacting with people through screens and masks. Because of this, the simple task of going to the store and talking to strangers feels borderline impossible. Being away from people for so long, we seem to forget how to communicate. 

However, Zhao’s film reminds us that talking to people is crucial and mind-stimulating. In one scene, Bob Wells and a group of nomads gather around a sizzling bonfire and exchange life stories. “I’m a Vietnam vet and I got PTSD,” one of the members shares. “I really can’t handle loud noises, big crowds, fireworks. I got a pickup truck and a camper. I can live out here and be at peace,” he shares. Another person, a woman, tells the gathered group that she began her healing journey over two years ago, thanks to Bob and his videos. These brief moments when nomads can come together and express their adoration for this lifestyle, are truly significant and carry a unique charm.

Swankie. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

The next meeting’s atmosphere transforms into something more somber when Swankie passes away. Nomads gather around the campfire, throwing stones into the fire one by one. “Because she loved rocks,” says a woman holding a little dog.  When it is Bob’s turn, he does the same and says, See you down the road, Swankie.” What I paid most attention to in this touching scene was that nobody cried. In contrast – Fern smiled when throwing the rock into the fire. I was amazed by the characters’ view on death. Instead of spiraling into sadness, it feels like they know that they will meet Swankie again.

While I observed Fern’s journey and was highly moved by her tight relationships with the community, I was also charmed by the exceptional, breathtaking cinematography that adds to the beauty of Nomadland – be it a beautiful sunset, Linda May and Fern resting in folded chairs, or the aforementioned bonfire scene. With yet another factor, Nomadland forces us to reflect, maybe even on our life, and go back to these moments that seem irrelevant, still, they’re burnt into our memory because we value them for different reasons. Maybe it was the positive, euphoric feeling we felt during that moment. Perhaps it’s the person that we shared a moment with. 

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

That’s the magic of Zhao’s film. With the exceptional acting of McDormand, the creators open and let us discover a different world, where we stop our busy lives and live in the now with Fern.  As we are mentored by Bob, Swankie, and Linda May, we also realize the faults of this country and the brutal aftermath of economic breakdown that left many no choice but to pack up, get into a vehicle, and travel, seeking work.

As mentioned above, it’s a picture that will let us reflect on our lives. We don’t need all the things we desire to be happy and free. What the film made me realize is that we live too fast and don’t appreciate trivial moments in our day. I was rather dismissive of them. However, Nomadland transformed my thinking. The film also encourages us to appreciate the people in our lives anew, as well as those ones who will appear in our path in the future.

Nomadland is available to stream on Hulu.