Nomadland is a blend of documentary and narrative historical fiction. Daniel Day-Lewis may be the most famous method-actor, but Frances McDormand gives him a run for the money in Nomadland. McDormand plays Fern, a widow who has transitioned to van life, traveling around the American west in a van and working seasonal jobs. McDormand lived in the van for most of the filming and blended into the nomad community so well that she was offered jobs like other nomads.
Most of the people in the film are actual nomads. David Strathairn is one of the few other actors and plays a sort of love interest, Dave. He is much more interested in getting to know Fern than Fern is in getting to know him. This is also the narrative fiction part of the film and I did not like it. The film has a stark split between conversations with nomads and what their lives are like and this will they won’t they between Fern and Dave. The love story is a detriment to the film and uninteresting.
The Fern and Dave story tries to justify its existence as Dave moves back into a home with his son and a new grandson. It shows one possible exit of the nomad lifestyle for a meaningful reason. Fern visits Dave for a few days to attempt the same exit, but it doesn’t suit her. That is another valid option for nomads, to continue to reject living stationery in a house.
The film does a wonderful job of showing the real lives of nomads and exploring their reasoning. McDormand worked, for a few days, some of the jobs that these people have. She harvested beets, worked as a camp steward in a national park, and worked in an Amazon distribution center. The film does not comment on the nature of this work aside from it being physically demanding and sufficiently paid to move to the next place. The conversations around these jobs are wonderfully insightful.
This film will inspire wanderlust. A lot of the camping takes place on deserted Bureau of Land Management lands where anyone can camp. The film may be showing viable covid safe vacation options if you are up for long drives and isolated camping. Aside from the wanderlust, you will take away a new perspective on an alternative lifestyle and a glimpse into a community you are not familiar with. I did not leave with any emotional connection to Fern or Dave’s love story and still believe it distracted too much from the film. It was a balancing act that tipped too far.