Nomadland is a 2020 American neo-Western drama film directed, written, edited, and produced by Chloé Zhao. It is based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder.
Nomadland premiered on September 11, 2020, at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion. It also won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, making it the first film ever to win the top prize at both Venice and Toronto.
The Plot of the Nomadland
In 2011, the economy of the entire town of Empire, Nevada, is decimated after the main source of income for the townsfolk, a US Gypsum plant, closes its shutters for good. Fern, whose husband Bo has recently passed away, does several odd jobs to make ends meet.
She previously worked at the plant along with Bo for most of her adult life but now doesn’t have much to show for it. Empire soon becomes deserted as almost all its residents leave in search of better opportunities.
While working at an Amazon fulfillment center, she learns about nomadic living from her friend and colleague, Linda. Initially reluctant, Fern discovers that it might be the best option for her after the temporary employment at Amazon ends, and she fails to land any other job.
Following Linda’s advice, Fern ends up in a desert gathering in Arizona, where she receives instructions on the basics of how to be a modern nomad from the veterans of the lifestyle, including Bob Wells, a real-life legend of the community.
As time passes, Fern almost seamlessly assimilates into the community. She finds that this nomadic life perfectly complements her restless personality. It also helps her deal with her grief. She carries that grief in her journey throughout the film. When she eventually returns to Empire and the home she and Bo shared, it signifies that she is finally ready to close that chapter of her life.
Fern is a deceptively complex character. She exudes genuine warmth and earnestness when she is with her fellow nomads. She demonstrates almost a childlike giddiness when she attends the RV show with her friends. On the other hand, when Swankie tells Fern that she (Swankie) has only a few months to live, Fern is sober, supportive, and kind.
Her poignant conversation with Bob also precedes her return to her erstwhile home. They share their stories of loss with each other, giving one another glimpses of immense grief that they carry around with themselves.
Fern goes back to Empire to say those same words to her husband. She sells the stuff she left in the warehouse and visits their home one last time. It’s her moment of catharsis. She is there not necessarily to find closure but to acknowledge her desire to live on. She leaves Empire because she has nothing that has a hold on her any longer.
Zhao keeps it restrained, choosing to focus on the human side of Fern’s experience. When Fern declares that she is “houseless” but not “homeless,” it doesn’t serve as a statement against the global elites but an assertion of her current identity.