The failing healthcare system, cost of education, and frequent instances of unemployment are just a few of the ugly threats to the American dream. While many envision a house on the corner with a white picket fence, others see the vanity and emptiness that come from the acquisitions of material goods. Chloe Zhao‘s Nomadland is a portrait of a subculture who have chosen to escape from the unrealistic expectations of the capitalistic delusion.
In the film, Fern (Frances McDormand) leaves the place she’s known for most of her adult life. The emotion surrounding her husband’s death along with the inability to get a steady job motivates her to find something new. This change leads Fern to practice a nomadic lifestyle as she travels around, sustaining herself with cash from temporary work while also seeking true human connection. Fern is not homeless but houseless, making constant improvements and renovations to the van she lives in that takes her from place to place.
At each stop where she camps, Fern meets others who have refused to live the standard force-fed lifestyle of working until they die. During these times, a small community emerges as the group exchanges tools, shares emotional baggage through storytelling, and supports each other in true acts of mutual aid. They take care of their fellow nomads with a rare level of respect that leaves no room for judgment. A candid moment of a trade involving a can opener and a potholder is a reminder that there are alternatives to shopping at a big-box retailer. In the same way, there are other options than just social media for human connection.
In Nomadland each person has a specific reason for rejecting the normal habits that society celebrates. Swankie, an older woman Fern becomes friends with, eventually tells of her eight-month cancer prognosis. Instead of living the last of her days in a hospital room, connected to wires and tubes as she listens to the constant beeping and nurse’s chatter, she decides to travel to a place that once made her feel alive. She describes a profound experience, a moment during kayaking where hundreds of swallows and their newborn offspring swarmed around her. Swankie wants to spend her final moments feeling that joy, something usually removed from the so-called American dream.
Zhao’s choice to use mostly non-actors, something she has also done in previous projects, enhances the sincerity of Nomadland. A pink and blue sunset in the desert, a cigarette being lit, a conversation with an acquaintance about loss: every moment shown on screen not only adds to Fern’s search for self-discovery but to the appeal of living a lifestyle fueled by something other than what capitalism calls success. This doesn’t mean Nomadland is a romanticized version of fact, perfected for an Instagram post or to sell a version of the truth that doesn’t exist. Instead, the film is a reminder that we have the choice to live as we please.
It is an attempt to find value in one’s self outside of capitalism even if most of society doesn’t agree. This is evident every time someone knocks on the van window to tell Fern to park elsewhere or of the location of the nearest homeless shelter. What they don’t understand is she is content living and traveling out of her van. This is most palpable when it suddenly doesn’t start. She takes the vehicle into the auto shop where the mechanic informs her of the $2,000 cost to fix her van. Another mechanic chimes in to give unwanted advice, stating that because of the high mileage, it would make more sense to sell it and invest in a new one. “I spent a lot of time and money building the inside out and a lot of people don’t see the value in that,” she answers the mechanic, which is true.
While Fern understands the unaccounted worth of the life around her, the type of importance that can’t be computed into dollar signs, a majority of the world around her has not explored what the meaning of value is outside of money. Still, we all fall into the traps that capitalism has set around. During a moment at an RV show with her friend, Linda May, and another lady, they all laugh as they step into the newest and most adorned vehicle on display. They sit inside and dream about driving to Hawaii, despite the water that stands between the open road and their goal destination. In the end, these ladies would not trade the inner happiness they’ve found being nomads for any monetary amount or decked out RV. They have found true companionship along the road.
Of course, the most important companion for a nomad is one’s self. This is evident in Fern’s transformation from the beginning to the end. The person who was once weighed down by the loss of her life partner and the failure to find work is now content being on her own. The current marketplace cannot survive on consumers finding happiness and self-worth. How could anything sell if we as a society no longer need superfluous items and substances to cope with our inner battles? This doesn’t mean we do not feel sadness or anger, but in an environment less ruled by capitalism, there is no place to see these sorts of emotions as negative.
The failure of America’s capitalism is even more evident now during a global pandemic. While this is not an ideal time to break our current leases and set out across the country in a van, it is an opportunity to be like Fern and reevaluate our own relationship with value and self-worth. It can be as easy as trading a can opener for a potholder, sharing a laugh with an acquaintance, or taking a walk alone to learn everything that makes us human.