‘Nomadland’: An Odyssey to the West

Sooner or later, all of us are going to have to leave college. Some may know what they want to do from their first day of freshman year. Others, like me, may be in the final hours still contemplating what to do with their lives. So what does “Nomadland”, a movie about a woman in her sixties, have to do with college students? Quite a lot, and for anyone living with uncertainty in their lives, “Nomadland” may be the perfect answer.

Fern is a 60-something-year-old widow who decides to leave her town after the local factory shuts down. Instead of moving somewhere and settling down, she lives a life on the road as a nomad. Through her eyes we experience a special subsection of American culture that many may not be aware of.

A week ago, I compared this film to “Borat”, but that’s only true in one specific sense — most of the characters are real people. Every nomad that Fern meets is completely authentic. Instead of being used as jokes, these people are brought on to give their real-life reasons for becoming a nomad. It’s unclear how much, if any, of their dialogue is scripted, but it gives the film a unique pseudo-documentary feel.

Frances McDormand is incredible as Fern. Her improvised banter with the real nomads is so heartwarming and charming, making her fit right in. The sorrow and uncertainty that she carries beneath her hearty exterior makes her relatable.

In general, this is one of the most relatable movies I’ve seen in awhile. Nomadland explores themes of reassessing personal values after finding oneself after a huge life change. It’s reassuring seeing someone much older than ourselves dealing with something that us college students will have to go through soon. For those of us who don’t know what we’re doing after graduation, “Nomadland” tells us that’s okay.

The familiarity is boosted by the fact that a chunk of the film is set in western South Dakota. Fern even gets a job at Wall Drug at one point. Director Chloé Zhao’s clear love for the Midwest is shown by the beautiful photography captured in relatively mundane areas. The beauty of wide open spaces is accompanied by a calming and ethereal piano score, and that sets the contemplative tone of the whole film perfectly.

What surprised me most was how funny the film was. Zhao is very careful in portraying the nomad lifestyle with respect, but she also doesn’t shy away from some of the more absurd aspects of living in a van. Some of the nomads are eccentric and not shy about it, so they provide some quality laughs.

“Nomadland” isn’t just an entertaining movie, it’s also an important vessel through which we can reflect on how we live our lives. There’s a moment in the film where Fern’s sister compares modern-day nomads to the pioneers, exploring lands unknown and redefining what the word “home” means. Soon we’ll all leave school and go on our own journey, but now I’m certain that we’ll find some “home” along the way.

  1. Great review! I’ll have to check it out!

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