Compassion and vulnerability is in the heart of 'Nomadland'


Tilly Long, Third Year, English

‘Home, is it just a word? Or is it something you carry within you?’ is a question we ponder throughout the entirety of Nomadland (2020), along with our protagonist, sixty-something-year-old Fern, (Frances McDormand) as she aimlessly journeys alone through the American West.

Having lost everything as a result of the Great Recession, we first meet Fern working arduous hours in the depressing backdrop of a huge Amazon warehouse over Christmas, complete with patronising past neighbours who are perplexed by her newly nomadic lifestyle. But Fern is proud of the van she lives in. She has built a tucked-away shelf for vintage china plates inherited from her father; she feels safe in there.

Frances McDormand as Fern | Courtesy of

McDormand’s performance is revelatory and grounded all at once. Fern is a compassionate character: a mourning widow who is also unexpectedly playful and childlike. It's implied that her previous forty-five years have been spent building a life around both her husband and the rigidly prescribed set of rules in Empire, Nevada where she was a substitute teacher. This heavily contrasts with the freedom we now find her in, which she appears to cherish, despite the harsh winters and lack of job stability.

Based on the 2017 non-fiction work ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century’, this is undoubtedly a film of the American poor, who have been otherwise forgotten by Hollywood and society at large. What makes this such an interesting portrayal is the incorporation of many non-actors: real-life, maturing nomads, who allow director Chloe Zhao to capture the true spirit of the film, which is surely empathy. The inclusion of these often-underrepresented perspectives makes for frequent moments of intimacy and calm.

Open landscapes show us Fern's freedom | Courtesy of

Resonant, vulnerable dialogue between Fern and an influx of travellers often intercede with sweeping backdrops of an America which may seem unfamiliar to its audience. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards presents us with a reassuring embrace in the form of wide-open space, where possibilities seem to be endless.

At times the montages are slow-moving and uninterrupted by any speech. While this may start to lose viewers of an impatient disposition, it encourages us to lose ourselves in Fern’s world of complete freedom.

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Audiences seem to already be engaging with the hopeful tone of the movie, as it has become the first ever to win the top prize at both Venice and Toronto’s film festivals. In a time where we have all been deprived of so much, Zhao and McDormand depict the heart of America with the warmest humanity. “You take care of yourself.”

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