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Houseless, not homeless: ‘Nomadland’

| Monday, September 6, 2021

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

If you’re a city person like me, “Nomadland” will make you slow down. This film was showing in the Browning Cinema in DPAC this past weekend; I was lucky enough to go on a journey with Fern, “Nomadland”’s elderly protagonist (Frances McDormand). I followed Fern, dipping my toes into a stream of rushing water, taking in the woody scent as the forest embraced me, even tilting my head back to look up at an evening sky swirling with lilac and orange hues in the sweeping desert. 

But the Academy Award-winning film isn’t just a highlight reel of beautiful landscapes. In fact, the background for a lot of Fern’s days consists of vast, dreary campgrounds or winding roads in the icy wilderness of the American West. This is because the character is part of a loose constellation of nomads, elderly Americans who’ve lost their livelihoods and have had to vacate their homes due to a combination of economic factors, the 2008 recession among them. These nomads opt to make their homes in vans or recreational vehicles, doing temporary jobs wherever they go. 

To me, this story is distinctly American. It is a uniquely American notion for people, even the elderly, to hold on dearly to their personal freedom when everything, including their dignity, has been taken away from them. I say this specifically because most of the film’s nomadic characters do in fact have some family members who are willing to take them in. However, these individuals prefer to be the authors of their own destiny, even if that means giving up running water and safety. 

The trajectory of the film also reflects how the economy has let down American people who have spent their whole lives working for one company. In Fern’s case, her husband worked at a mine until he died; later, the mine was shut down, forcing out all the dependents who lived there. The nomads are forced to accept this failure of the state, and instead of protesting for better Social Security benefits, they just move on with their lives. 

The film makes a poignant statement about freedom. The free market and rapid closure of the mine lead to Fern’s ruin. However, it’s that same fluidity of the labor market that allow her to find a new lease on life in the form of a job at an Amazon packaging unit. The scenes in the grey Amazon facility are particularly jarring after the wide shots of gorgeous nature, this dichotomy providing a fitting symbolic reflection of an odd reality: Amazon, which is not known to be the most generous employer, is actually what is keeping Fern afloat and not her nest egg thanks to the perpetual strangeness of the free market. 

“Nomadland”’s depiction of the free-flowing companionship of the nomads was similarly moving. The bonds that Fern makes as she travels are deep, but the nomads never hold each other back. Swankie, one of Fern’s friends, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and only has a few months to live. At first, Fern wants to take her to a hospital, but Swankie is clear that she wants to ‘watch pelicans fly’ and live life instead of dying in a hospital room. Before Swankie leaves on her travels, Fern helps her fix up her van and gives her a haircut, making for one of the most intimate scenes in the film. Fern’s other friends weave in and out of her life, sometimes working the same job and reveling in each others’ company but also going off on their separate adventures, with the understanding that only two untethered people can have. 

Beyond all the political statements the film makes about the lack of welfare in the US and about personal liberty, “Nomadland” is an achingly realistic slice of life that will make you think of what home means to you.

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