Finding a place to belong, an identity is important but it’s not always easy. That becomes even harder when you suffer a loss. The film Nomadland, which is nominated for several Golden Globe Awards and is now streaming on Hulu, tackles that subject as it looks at life for older Americans set adrift in a shifting economy. They’ve found identity and belonging in the world of the gig economy, traveling from place-to-place where there’s work and connecting in RV parks and campgrounds around the country.
The film comes from director Chloé Zhao, who adapted the story for the screen from a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder. It captures a slice of life, and a number of locations that we don’t often see. All of it is grounded in the fictional story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a world-weary and independent woman who hits the road in her van looking for work after she loses her husband and her Nevada town collapses after the local mine shuts down. She’s set adrift, trying to find her place in a new world.
In 2009, Jason Reitman adapted Up in the Air for the big screen. It came on the heels of the economic collapse that left many companies and industries in ruin. Reitman used the opportunity to capture real people caught in the shifting economic sands, including interviews with those who’d lost their jobs as they tried to step forward into the unknown. While much of the attention in the film is drawn to the fictional story of Ryan (George Clooney), it was the real slice of life in America that stuck with me.
In many ways, Nomadland feels like a spiritual successor to that story. Set in 2012, three years after Up in the Air, it focuses on that group of later middle age adults who lost jobs when the economy collapsed and had to find a new place. They found their footing in the gig economy and the freedom of a nomadic existence. Like Up in the Air, Zhao populates her film wherever possible with real individuals living this life, sharing their stories and struggles to give the audience an appreciation for what it means to find yourself by hitting the road.
Through Fern, we also understand the appeal of being free to roam. Even when she’s presented an opportunity to go another way, Fern feels pulled to the home she’s built in her van, and the life she’s chosen moving from place-to-place for work. McDormand is wonderful in the lead role, expressively telling this journey through her performance. You feel Fern’s journey thanks to the expressive and in-depth performance from McDormand, a Golden Globe nominee who figures to be part of the field at the Oscars as well.
The other piece that makes this hum is the direction and storytelling from Zhao. There are some stunning visuals in this piece, which makes space for the quiet and intimate moments of the story. I was deeply moved by what I saw and heard and felt drawn into this beautifully told story. Nomadland is one of my favorite films from 2020 and one that you should make a point to see.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a proud member of the Drive-In Podcast Network.