Recently I watched this year’s Best Picture Academy Award winner “Nomadland.” The film strikes me as a very American story about a woman without a permanent home or job who finds herself living a nomadic life after the death of her husband and the loss of her job and community (“Very American” because of the role the vast American landscape plays in setting the scenes). Our protagonist Fern (played by Frances McDormand in an Oscar-winning role) ends up finding a community of fellow nomads who hopscotch around the country following work, good weather, and meaningful experiences.
The movie was adapted from a nonfiction book (“Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century” by Jessica Bruder) that was released a few years ago. I couldn’t help but wonder while I watched it if the world would be seeing a surge in nomads after the pandemic. I explore that question and review the movie in this post.
Movie Review and discussion of nomadic life
My parents and I watched this film on Hulu (I signed up for a free month trial) the day of the Academy Awards. In years past we try to watch as many of the nominated films and even fill out ballots to see who will make the most accurate predictions. This year that didn’t happen. COVID-19 rocked the world, pushed the Oscars back two months and had us all sheltering in place and not venturing out to see movies. The movie industry responded to the pandemic by releasing a large majority of newly released films in streaming platforms or Video-On-Demand. You would think that would mean we would’ve watched more and not less of the nominated movies because of their easier accessibility. We didn’t. And I don’t think we were alone. Since March 2020 when COVID-19 really hit the United States, my parents and I have not watched a lot of movies and have instead been watching game shows, cooking and baking shows and home shows. Those have been what we’ve been gravitating to in order to provide ourselves with comfort and solace. We also LOVE “House Hunters International” (HGTV) and have found two shows that are new to us: “Escape to the Chateau” (HGTV) and “Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations” (Cooking Channel). These shows have allowed us to (practically) travel the world (safely) during a pandemic. However, I had heard enough about “Nomadland” that it seemed a good choice to watch in preparation for the awards. So we set aside our competition cooking shows for a foray into the fictional (but not really) world of “Nomadland.”
It felt good and strange at the same time to venture into a fictional (kind of) cinematic world. This movie also played with fiction and nonfiction by having real people playing fictionalized versions of themselves.
It was an interesting experience watching a movie about modern-day nomads not tied to place or space when the pandemic has turned the world into a place you have to shelter from and wandering no longer feels safe or possible. The pandemic has also made the physical office less necessary and in turn a trend that was picking up speed in 2019 (digital nomad) became a necessary means to get things done. Before the pandemic, with increased Internet speeds and more jobs possible to do remotely, there was a large group of people who were becoming “digital nomads” (they can live anywhere as long as they have access to the Internet in order to work). “House Hunters International” is full of digital nomads. These are people who have figured out where they want to live in the world and move there (as long as they can access the Internet for work). This article talks about digital nomads and the pandemic.
Even though it uses the word “nomad” I would say the idea of digital nomads is not at all similar to the movie “Nomadland.” Digital nomads have jobs and disposable incomes and are traveling the world BY CHOICE to experience different cultures and life. The film “Nomadland” was a portrait of living like a nomad for survival not luxury. The nomads portrayed in the film are different from digital nomads because they have become nomadic (living in their cars and vans) because they don’t have jobs and they are traveling less for the experience and more for survival.
The timing of the release of this film is interesting. The filmmakers couldn’t have known the strange world that we were about to enter with COVID-19. And yet, I think the film benefits from our current situation because a film about wandering the country in search of beauty and experiences feels especially needed and beautiful right now.
On a side note: “Nomadland” was nominated for 6 Academy Awards and won 3: Best Picture, Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Director (Chloe Zhao). Zhao is originally from China and she made history as the second woman to win Best Director and the first woman of color to win.