Spoilers for Nomadland to follow!
When I first saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I learned an important lesson in tempering expectations. After watching The Force Awakens,I had all of these ideas about what I wanted to see in the followup. When The Last Jedi famously didn’t deliver what was expected, it affected the movie’s quality in my mind. But after watching it a few more times, I realized that I can’t judge a movie based on my expectations for it. Art isn’t supposed to be everything for everyone at once. And in the years since I first saw the movie, I’ve completely changed my mind on it. I’ve accepted what it is and decided not to place my baggage on the movie. Instead, I take it and appreciate it for what it is.
Now, a few years later, I’ve had to re-learn the same lesson with Nomadland.
The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who lost her job and home due to the Great Recession, as she begins a life on the road, living out of a van.
Going into the film, I was expecting something that romanticized this nomad lifestyle. I love movies like Into the Wild and Captain Fantastic and based on the trailer and other marketing materials, I thought Nomadland was going to be similar to them. But that’s totally not what the movie was about, and it affected my first viewing. So I went back, cleared my mind, and watched the movie again.
My second viewing of Nomadland worked wonders. I didn’t love it, and it’s not my absolute favorite movie of the year, but I developed a deep appreciation for its greatness. It’s more about grief and finding a way to accept and move on with your life while still holding on to the past.
Into the Wild or Captain Fantastic explore themes of connection to yourself and nature away from the “tyranny of the dollar” as one Nomadland character puts it. And there certainly is some of that in Nomadland, but it’s not the film’s main idea. Fern is out on her own largely because of necessity. Once she lost her job, home, and sadly, her husband, she felt like she didn’t have any choice. Now, instead of having a steady job, she’s forced to take what she can get seasonally (and I don’t think it’s any accident that Fern works at Amazon not once, but twice).
So Nomadland definitely explores the idea of finding purpose in life, but in a different way than the others I mentioned. Because Fern is stuck, she doesn’t seem to have a legitimate purpose or reason for living the way she does. For her, it’s the only way she can stay connected to her previous home and, more importantly, to her deceased husband.
She makes connections with other nomads during her time on the road and those scenes are the most personal and where I was most invested. Many of the actors in the movie were playing themselves — actual nomads living in the American West — and it makes the movie feel just that much more real and lets it hit home even more deeply. McDormand fits right in with these people (imagine that, a great actress giving a great performance) and you believe every moment of the movie because of it. You go through highs with these people and you go through lows. It’s heartbreaking yet creates zeal and vigor for life at the same time. These people are ready to tackle whatever life throws at them because they know and love their situation.
This is what makes Fern’s story even more impactful. I’ve seen a lot of people say there isn’t much of a story and that there isn’t enough character development for Fern, but I think her arc is actually very satisfying. In retaliation for implying that her brother-in-law perpetuates a system that encourages going into massive debt to buy a house, he accuses her of chucking everything to “hit the road,” and she takes offense at the accusation. While it’s an insensitive comment meant to hurt, it’s not completely off, whether or not Fern realizes it. There were people throughout the movie who offered her a place to stay to help her get back on her feet, but she doesn’t accept the offers. She’s determined to hold onto her past life. It isn’t until the end that she finally accepts her real position in life.
In one of the film’s final scenes, Fern talks to Bob Wells, the man who inspired so many to take up the nomad lifestyle (and who is also playing himself). Like everyone, Bob has lost people, namely his son, but he found a way to come out of the pain and tragedy to help and serve others. Fern hasn’t found her way out at this point.
Fern tells Bob, “My dad used to say, ‘What’s remembered, lives.’ I maybe spent too much of my life just remembering.” By the end, after all of these experiences with people, getting to know them and understanding why they’ve made their choices, Fern finally understands what’s been holding her back. The movie isn’t saying that remembering things is bad. It’s saying the opposite, actually. Keep your memories and understand what makes them special. But use those memories to help you move forward. Take what you’ve learned and help others, however that looks for you.
After her conversation with Bob, Fern goes back to her old home. She takes it all in, and it’s a very emotional scene. Notably, after going through the relics of the past, she walks out her backdoor and she’s framed like John Wayne in The Searchers (is that one of the only classic film references I recognize when it comes to visual language? Maybe! But it’s still effective.). The only difference — and it’s a big one — is that instead of keeping the camera indoors to show that the character only has one way to go, the camera follows Fern out the door. It’s an optimistic ending — she’s walking into a world of opportunity and possibility. She understands her past and she’s getting ready to grow, learn from it, and help others for the better.
We don’t know exactly where Fern will go or what she will do, but there’s plenty of room for hope and optimism. She’s driving off into the world to affect it for the better, whatever that means for her. Fern, like I did with judging movies, finally learned not to try to force something to to be what you wanted or hoped it would be. Let it come to you. Learn from it and let life come at you and teach you lessons.
Man, am I happy I watched this movie again.