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#VanLife #Nomadland #Review #Oscars

April 25, 2021


#VanLife is not the romantic experience you might think from the images on Instagram you’ll find by searching for the hashtag; it’s much more like the one that France McDormand shares in her new film Nomadland. I would know because I bought my first van in the early 90s and lived in it on and off for seven years, including multiple trips to the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man, driving past Empire, Nevada, where the protagonist in Nomadland lives before she hits the road. I’ve enjoyed life with two more vw vans since then, but rarely living in them longer than a few weeks at a time. I have more to say about the experience, but for now, since tonight is Oscar night and the film is up for several, here’s a review of Nomadland by Ron Wells, below.

Nomadland is a “road” movie about a woman’s spiritual quest. What exactly she is trying to find is layered beneath such things as various campgrounds, people met on the road and people who have gone, all types of rocks, and even images of dinosaurs. Fern, played by Frances McDormand, travels alone in her van, aptly named “Vanguard,” meets many “nomads” like herself, and visits place after place searching for that which may be undefinable.

Director and screenwriter Chloe Zhao has given us a movie which was hinted at in 2018 when she wrote and directed the brilliant little film, The Rider. Nomadland is larger in scope and theme as she once again takes the viewer on a journey of discovery amongst people who may be seen, but are seldom heard from in our modern world.

In this, Zhao has been hugely succesful in bringing to the screen a beautiful and thought provoking film.
The movie plays out almost like a documentary, centered around McDormand’s Fern who quietly dominates every scene she is in, for Fern is strong, independent, and almost zen-like in her search. She is not anti-social in any way; she truly appreciates the people she meets on the road, and even is able to accept or come to terms with family members, past and present, as well as a man who invites her to join him in his new life. But as much as she cares for all of these people, Fern is searching for something deeper. 

She remembers the town of Empire where she and and her husband, who is now deceased, once lived. She remembers how he loved his job at the Empire Gypsum Plant and the town surrounding it before economic forces closed the plant and the town. And yet, she remembers something that was unfulfilled in herself, something that comes back in a memory of looking out her back door across a vast desert flowing to the mountains far away, and recalls that “there was nothing in our way” if they had chosen to leave and explore the open space beyond. With this in mind, Director Zhoe frames a shot of Fern that is almost identical to the iconic shot John Ford used of John Wayne in The Searchers. It is a great homage to Ford, and perfect in its implications for Fern.

Zhao uses many non-professional actors in their roles as Nomads, each with an intriguing and insightful story as to how they came to be where they are at this point in their lives. The stories are as complex and searching as Fern’s, and yet each is unique in its own way.

For general movie-going audiences, there must be this warning. This film is not an adventure film. Nor an action film. Nor, even a romance. Many people will be bored out of their minds as they wait for something to happen, when in actuality, very little “happens.”

Rather, this road film hides its adventure deep below the surface. It must be sought out by the viewer in little puzzle pieces as intricate as those Fern puts together while waiting for her clothes to dry in the laundromat. The action is in the conversations and the comings and goings of the Nomads.

And the romance is as separate as Fern choosing to sleep in her van rather than the house of a man she’s met on the road.

To understand this film, one must dig beneath the surface in hopes that there is treasure hidden there, even though there are no guarantees.

For those who go on this search, there is treasure such as when Fern recites the Shakespearian sonnet “Shall I compare you to a summer’s day” which was her wedding vow when she married her husband. There is a former student who remembers MacBeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech which Fern taught her.

There is the ranger explaining to campers that when they open their hands under the night sky they are actually holding atoms that have traveled for many light years from distant planets and which the people are now holding.

It is a ceremony for her friend, Swankee. It is camp organizer, Bob Wells, telling the story of his son. These treasures cannot be measured in dollars and cents. 

McDormand’s performance is miraculous in its depth. Her eyes, mouth, and face go beyond stoic to the spirit living deeply within her. As for Chloe Zhao, we now have a director and screenwriter whose vision and voice are as powerful as anyone working today. In so many ways, this is a magnificent work of art if you are willing to patiently look deeply into it and search for things that may never be found, or which may cause you to pause and rethink every certainty you previously thought about your own life, or Fern’s life. It is everything that art should be.

Based on the book of the same name written by Jessica Bruder, this film has been nominated for multiple Academy Awards: 

Have you seen the film yet?

What did you think?

Have you lived the #vanlife? 


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