Nomadland: Not All Who Wander

I absolutely despise the film Into The Wild, starring Emile Hirsch, that tells the real life story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who decided to walk away from a college degree and a good life in middle America in order to become a drifter and live off the land. He, with no actual training or survivalist experience, eventually made his way to Alaska in order to become one with nature and have a lot of deep, existential conversations with trees or whatever. Eventually, after nearly starving to death, he poisons himself and dies a short distance away from a bridge spanning a river he was isolated by, that he would have easily been able to traverse and possibly save his own life, except that he had not bothered to consult a map of the area he was in. He died in an old abandoned school bus that he was using for shelter, a school bus that in real life had to be removed by authorities because too many copycats and admirers were getting lost or injured trying to find this absurd landmark.

If it sounds like have a particular note of contempt in my tone it’s because while I understand the sentiment and even some of the adulation towards someone who boldly swears off the shackles of a consumer society and communes with their ancestral instincts and desire for adventure, I grew up poor. And when you grow up poor you walk by the windows of these homes, with their firelight and Thanksgiving decorations left up for too long, you wonder what it’s like to go to college first and then decide what your major is going to be, because unless you’re one of those Very Special Episode kids, you don’t even know what a game plan looks like to earn a scholarship, it’s all loans and debt. For every amazing teacher or counselor there are about 10,000 more who do not give a shit. So Christopher McCandless, while the ambition is respected, is an asshole in my book. Into The Wild is a very good film, though, context aside.

Nomadland is a film that is both antithetical and complimentary to Into The Wild. Rather than a celebration of the potential and wonder of youth and the power of nature, it’s a patient meditation on the quiet slide into disrepair and obsolescence. It’s about people who have been left behind finding a way back to community and purpose, while marking time towards eventuality with dignity, in the face of relentless indignities. Nomadland exists in and examines that inevitable time and place when our wounds will stop healing and get the better of us, but does so without losing sight of the beauty in the desolation, in the in-between forgotten places full of artifacts and ghosts.

Frances McDormand is that rare talent who can not only carry a film this minimalist, but tell a story with this little dialogue or conflict and Nomadland, while populated with the actual nomads and itinerant people the film is based on, lives or dies on her ability to humanize and emulate them without pandering. These are the odd-yet-familiar people you pass on the street or see driving by in a camper and don’t think twice about. McDormand’s character Fern, is that woman well into her twilight years still working a fryer, wearing a fast food uniform, with a map of the world on her face, and cigarette stained fingernails. She, and they, are the people you know have a fascinating story that brought them to this place or another, and it must be a sad one but oh, well. That will never happen to me, which is exactly what they must have thought once upon a time.

To say Nomadland is bleak does a disservice to what is a powerful and remarkably confident film about what it is to be an outsider, even among outsiders, and still find ways to be kind and considerate. Fern, having lost her husband and the idyllic life they had made for themselves, has committed herself to living out of a van. She works hard and treats the people around her with the kind of motherly/sisterly respect that you would expect if you ever had the opportunity to work around or with Frances McDormand. To say Nomadland is uplifting also does a disservice to how much faith director and writer Chloe Zoa has in the audience to confront the realities of mortality and the fundamental inhumanities inherent to late-stage capitalism, which isn’t a political statement so much as the full-throated iteration of the fact that the moment you stop producing or consuming, you are only so much chaff to be recycled or stepped over.

For that experience, and the cognitive dissonance found in feeling both depressed and fulfilled afterwords, I am on the hype train for Nomadland and it’s inevitable deluge of awards and accolades. This is a film that is a slice out of time in a place that only exists because of the people who have decided to occupy it, people who lost their livelihoods or loved ones or homes and said, fuck that, home is where I say it is. I suspect it will inspire that same romantic wanderlust that Chris McCandless and Jon Krakauer artfully inspired in folks searching for meaning or substance in their own lives, that abandoning one’s problems is a valid alternative to working them, selectively ignoring the fact that these denizens of the road have, in many cases, lost every other choice. For them the option is not romantic, simply the only one left. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe wandering with the purpose of getting lost has been the point all along, I have a feeling I’ll find out one day.

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