The issues and problems that drive Chloé Zhao Nomad land could be from anywhere. There are people everywhere with too much sadness and too little money; Restless souls are striking everywhere to see the world. Bonds are being forged and broken everywhere, and maybe forged again somewhere on the street.
But the specific combination in which they appear here, catalyzed by indifferent government policies and against the endless desert sky, feels unmistakably American. This may not be a story that can only happen in America, but it is a story that speaks to both the promise and the lie of a uniquely American myth.
Based on Jessica Bruder̵
Nomad land speaks to both the promise and the lie of a uniquely American myth.
Ferns criss-cross the country doing odd jobs: packing boxes for Amazon, mopping floors in a bathroom at an RV park, turning burgers at the tourist attraction Wall Drug. In this way she joins a larger community of nomads, mostly elderly people like her, who are looking for work. Most of their new friendships end when one party or another takes to the streets again, but some repeat themselves over and over, like the friendly gentleman (David Strathairn) with an understated but obvious crush on them.
McDormand and Strathairn are the only notable actors in the entirety of Nomad land – or in Zhao’s previous filmography, by the way. (That will change drastically in 2021 EternalMuch of the rest of the cast is made up of real nomads, and Zhao treats them as curiously and tenderly as her famous lead role. McDormand, for his part, is brilliant as Fern, gritty enough to blend in but magnetic enough to shoulder the movie’s gentle emotional arcs with grace.
Through their and distant stories, we learn the combination of choice and necessity that brought these people here. Not surprisingly, economic fears are a major issue. In one scene, Fern’s friend explains that after all her life she turned to the nomadic lifestyle only to find out that her social security benefits are peanuts. When Bob Wall (a well-known real life nomad) protested the “tyranny of the dollar” a few scenes later, describing the ideal American worker as “a workhorse ready to work itself to death and then head for pasture go, “” It is impossible to argue.
But Nomad land is not a dull anecdote or soapbox sermon. It is too sensitive for that, too invested in the humanity of Fern and all those around them. The film doesn’t shy away from the more difficult details of Fern’s life – the physical toll that handwork takes to Fern, the danger she faces when her car breaks down, even the awkwardness of pooping in a bucket. At the same time, it saves moments of joy, like the smile that goes wide on her face when she shares a joke with a new friend, or the blissful calm that melts all over her body when she plunges into a stream. Especially at a time when so many of us are stuck home alone Nomad land Perhaps if you long to take to the streets yourself and get lost in the wilderness, it will be enough for you to be found again.
Nomad land itself is almost devoid of plot in the sense that there are few dramatic twists and turns or even ostentatious emotions. You may feel moved to tears or ecstasy by the poetry of his paintings, but the characters themselves tend to put up with their pains and joys. However, it contains various stories that we already know by heart.
There is the one about the pioneer venturing into the American West to seek her fortune, to find herself, and to explore new territories. And the one about the restorative power of the wilderness, the connection to nature that makes the whole world feel at home. Nomad land is a tribute to the spirit of independence that drives a woman forward, even if life keeps knocking her down, and to the resilience of the community that helps her secure herself every time, and also an indictment of the system that pushes them back again and again.
Furthermore Nomad land is simply the story of Fern. Maybe you met someone like her. It is more likely that you haven’t; Fern is part of a community that has been marginalized by a society that considers it too old, too poor, too eccentric something worth worrying about. But Nomad land give it the attention it deserves. It challenges us to see her, to know her, to love her and ultimately to recognize her as one of us.
Nomad land now running at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is slated to hit theaters on December 4th.