While traveling with friends in India in 2009, I became so enamored with the ability to roam as I pleased. Living off ten dollars a day, we hopped on trains, ventured to small towns from the South of the country to the north, and I found I couldn’t leave. I emailed my university and got deferred for a semester; I changed my plane tickets, and using the savings I had accumulated from working two jobs, I wandered. What was supposed to be a three-month trip turned into nine as I met travelers, stayed on rooftops of guest houses, and ventured to countries I hadn’t dreamed would be possible. My home would always be Melbourne, but at that time in my life, all I needed was what was in my backpack.
Looking back, it may have been a combination of wanderlust and a need for healing space. After I returned to Australia, it only took under a year before I set off for another backpacking adventure in South America and India for another ten months. It was a lifestyle I chose, and it has taken me years to understand the journey.
Chloé Zhao’s extraordinary new film Nomadland, based on Jessica Bruder’s book and written for the screen by Zhao, follows a woman on a journey across the American West, living in a van-dwelling as a modern-day nomad. It’s a remarkable film about loss and the circular motion of grief. There’s a sense that this woman is lost and aimless but extremely capable and charismatic.
She is played by the incomparable Frances McDormand, and it isn’t easy to see anyone else in this role. Accompanied by a chorus of real-life people playing supporting roles, Nomadland is a narrative feature infused with documentary-styled elements that shape the story into being an authentically observed masterpiece. Combining the lilting piano of Ludovico Einaudi and stunning cinematography by Joshua James Richards, this film is a must-see for anyone whose journey is far from over.
When we meet Fern (Frances McDormand), she’s leaving a storage facility where she cradles her deceased husband’s jacket. He passed away, the factory in their small town of Empire, Nevada, shut down, and everyone moved away. One of the last to leave, Fern travels to an Amazon work center to make some money alongside her friend Linda May, whom she introduces to her decked-out van, named Vanguard.
When Fern peruses a sports store, she encounters an old acquaintance who comments on Fern’s new short hair. She offers Fern a bed at her place and reiterates that people are worried about her. However, Fern, formerly in human resources at the plant where her husband worked, then a substitute teacher, refused to register for early retirement and instead chose to keep working, moving onto the road. As she contends, she is not homeless, just houseless. We see her making burgers, shoveling potatoes into heavy sacks, and working as a campsite manager, all to support her nomad lifestyle.
Fern’s journey is far from over as she encounters the different meanings of home.
What’s remarkable about this film is Fern’s characterization. She is someone open-hearted to anyone she encounters but shies away from ties to a single location. She has no children but a sister who wishes she would stay with her. People in Fern’s former life fear for her safety, while her fellow nomads donate useful items, offer advice, and are always open for connection. McDormand blends into her surroundings, feeling as much a part of the land as her equivalents.
Fern attends a convention of sorts with fellow nomads where demonstrations for life-saving techniques on the road are shared. Once it’s over, she watches each van disappear into the distance while she works on repairing Vanguard and building storage space. The only other van in the area is owned by her friend Shakie, a senior nomad in the last months of her life. As Fern and Shakie sit around a fire in one powerful scene, Shakie asserts that she is not afraid to die. When her time is up, she will think about her beautiful life and adventures, including when she canoed down a river only for thousands of birds to surround her vessel. Her life has given her access to incredible, wondrous experiences, and she will die on the road away from any hospital.
That’s the joy of Nomadland and the incredible feat of Chloé Zhao, who wrote, directed, and edited the film. It’s at once life-affirming and generous to the stories that catapult people onto the road. As we understand Fern and how she got to this point in her life, she continues to make decisions on how she wants her future to look. A fellow nomad, Dave (David Strathairn), invites Fern to stay with him at his son’s place. The camera potently hovers around Fern as she decides her next move, McDormand’s face registering a myriad of emotions. She can drive past wild buffalo, swim naked in the rivers, recite poetry with an acquaintance and sleep in sub-zero temperatures. Every part of the journey feels like home. To stay in one place would be to deny herself the freedom of space.
These experiences affirm that those you encounter in life will be met again later on down the road. Home isn’t just a word or a single location; home is something you carry with you.
Even today, I interpret and compound those different versions of home because here I am, half a world away from my family, trying to fit every aspiration into this short life. There are always wonders left to explore, and one day. I’ll open my arms wide enough, sit by a fire, and recollect the beautiful things I’ve encountered.
What’s remembered lives, but don’t forget to live while you remember.