There’s a scene in Nomadland in which Fern, played by Frances McDormand as the film’s restless, nomadic lead, finds herself staying in the comfortable suburban home of her sister. The house sits on a tree-lined street, Fern’s guest room accommodations warm and cozy. It’s the opposite of Fern’s van, the cramped place she actually calls home, a battered white model that’s been laboriously customized to her liking on the inside with a bed, desk, and gas hot plate. A widowed nomad, Fern zig-zags in the film from Nevada to Arizona to South Dakota, picking up jobs at Amazon fulfillment centers and roadside restaurants, struggling to find places to park and sleep overnight in freezing cold temperatures. And when her sister asks her to move in, Fern replies adamantly that she can’t.
“When you were growing up you were eccentric to other people, you maybe seemed weird,” her sister says, resigned. “But it was just because you were braver and more honest than everybody else.”
Nomadland’s Fern does not become a nomad, “not homeless, just houseless” she says, of her own volition. The film begins with a slate of text describing the real 2011 closure of a sheetrock plant in the now ghost town of Empire, Nevada, the town where Fern’s character and her late husband Beau made their living. It’s just one example of director Chloé Zhao’s dedication to grounding the film in atmospheric realism, basing the film off of Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century which chronicled a generation of Americans pushed to live out of their vans in the face of dwindling Social Security and homelessness. Many of the people Bruder interviewed in her book appear in the film as lightly fictionalized characters, sharing stories that reflect the economic insecurities of real American seniors, many plagued by homelessness, and an inability to retire or afford healthcare.
There’s Linda May, who Fern meets while working at an Amazon warehouse and describes wanting to commit suicide after a period of being unable to find work. “I went online to look at my social security benefit, and it said $550,” she says, describing what led her to RV living. “I had worked my whole life. I worked since I was 12 years old, raised two daughters, I couldn’t believe it.” Charlene Swankie, a nomad suffering from cancer, chooses to travel as an avid kayaker experiencing nature instead of “spending anymore time indoors, in a hospital.” Around the campfire at an RV community, a woman describes a fellow co-worker in corporate America who died a week before he was due to retire. He died “having never been able to take that sailboat that he bought out of his driveway,” she says. “So I retired as soon as I could. I didn’t want my sailboat to be in the driveway when I died. My sailboat’s out here in the desert.”
Fern shares this economic disparity. She has lost the entire community she knew, her whole town, and her husband Beau, who died of cancer. But the economic constraints on Fern are not framed as the driving factor in her choice to become a nomad. Rather it’s her inherent “honesty,” her sister wages, and inability to live a life within socially acceptable terms, having left home as soon as she could, marrying her husband only after knowing him a few months. In one of the movie’s most revealing scenes, Fern is invited to Thanksgiving at the home of a former nomad named Dave (David Strathairn) who has moved in with his son. He tells her she is welcome to stay, but in the middle of the night she runs from her comfortable guest bed back out to her van to sleep, quietly taking in the empty house the next morning before leaving without saying goodbye. Life on the road just fits into what’s explained to viewers as Fern’s already eccentric streak. “I know we’re not as interesting as the people you meet,” her sister says. “It’s always what’s out there that’s more interesting.”
Hollywood has a Kerouacian way of glamorizing an existence lived on the road and the reality of homelessness as “interesting.” American road movies from Bonnie and Clyde to Easy Rider to My Own Private Idaho busy themselves with cinematic danger, adventure, and romance, not depressing realism, narrowing in on outlaws and wild characters. Many recent depictions of volunteered life adrift, from the global, colonialist gaze of 2010’s Eat, Pray, Love to Reese Witherspoon’s off-the-grid travel in 2014’s Wild, drop privileged protagonists into communities or hardened living, celebrating a life transformed by a brief journey masquerading as a life unconstrained. In film, often the road isn’t where people actually live, it’s where they go to escape the restrictions and doldrums of everyday life.
Nomadland, on the other hand, can be so realistic it can verge on tedium. It is interested in parking, in pooping, in laundry, in swapping can openers, and making money through service work and hard labor. It is more in line with Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 Wendy & Lucy, a devastating character study of a woman pushed into homelessness after her car breaks down. In grounding Fern’s character in Empire’s collapse and the stories of her fellow nomads, Zhao illuminates the systems that have forced these people onto the road and out of their formally comfortable lives, ones in which they were working towards security.
But even with Zhao’s inclusion of the sometimes real, sometimes fictional reflections on the hardships of nomadic living, Fern’s juxtaposition with real nomads in the film has garnered criticism for aestheticizing poverty. “Why cast actual survivors in a drama about their struggle, then invent a new, less vulnerable character just to water it down?” Wilfred Chan wrote for Vulture, in a piece outlining how Nomadland neglects the dangerous physical reality of Amazon workers while shooting in Amazon facilities. “The result is a movie that conveys the sense of aestheticizing disaster,” Richard Brody wrote for The New Yorker.
But Nomadland doesn’t aestheticize poverty so much as it messily depicts the characters’ connection to their nomadism. Nomadland doesn’t treat Fern’s life as a whimsical, chosen journey devoid of real poverty, but it doesn’t subsume the viewer in her trauma and depict an unbearable existence. It’s the gray area between the two, in which this life is chosen but not, that dismantles overly romanticized depictions of life on the road. There is a lot of joy in Nomadland, as Fern walks through swanky RV convention showrooms and jokes about the amenities with Swankie and Linda, or squirms at the sight of an alligator in an aquarium with Dave. And there is also beauty, as Zhao traces Fern’s journey against stretches of sunset-streaked skies and mountain ranges. But the joy and beauty doesn’t erase Nomadland’s darker reality or wash away the precariousness of nomadism. Rather, the film argues there can be flashes of both in this life.