I really wanted to like this film, I really did. And maybe if I wasn’t a lifelong vanlifer myself, I would. But I am, and I don’t.
Maybe it was the hype that let me down. The trailer for this independent film by Chloe Zhao hit youtube last year and I happened to see it last fall – months after everyone else and the hype-machine was already in high gear. I even posted the trailer with excitement here in the FOUND SPACE/S community. Frances McDormand is one of my favorite actresses and this film was an indie, so it had already scored two gold stars from me before I even watched it. The trailer was a condensed sweet look into the life and that’s what I was expecting the film to be – sweet. Some of the reviews I had read described it as an ode to the American West. Pioneer spirit and landscape.
The film instead is a very melancholy slice of nomad life that a lot of people do end up living. It made being a solo female vanlifer seem to be a depressing lifestyle. My slice is a quite a bit different from what is presented here.
For those of us who are familiar with youtube (and who isn’t) and specifically vanlife videos on youtube, Nomadland seems almost more like a documentary than a fictional feature film. If Frances McDormand wasn’t a well known actress, Fern could have been played by, well, Fern. Chloe Zhao did use real people in real jobs in real life in her film, which I kind of commend her for, but many of them, not all, were too recognizable to the community at large to be fiction.
But this is a story about Fern, and she enters into her life living in a van the same way a lot of other people do – through big loss. A number of big losses, really. The film feeds a stereotype about vanlife that I personally don’t like to project. The group that hangs out in Quartzite, Arizona, out in the desert plays a big role in this film as well. Too big of a role, actually. The RTR is only two weeks long, but it overpowered the film. It ate up the Arizona landscape, even after she left the site.
Even though I recognize some of the vanlifers in the film, I don’t know any of them personally. The folks that hang out down there in the winter look to and follow Bob Wells’ lead and vanlife philosophy, which is a sort of “start-up mode to vanlife”. Bob does do a lot of good work for people who find themselves in situations such as Fern – where society has just absolutely failed them. Unfortunately, a lot of vanlifers, including Fern, never seem to get beyond start-up mode.
It would have been nice to see more of the landscape as she traveled between Quartzite and Northern California – the Alabama Hills, Mammoth, Mono Lake, up and over Sonora Pass, and on and on.
The film does have a few endearing and relatable moments. There were a lot of little Fern experiences that I could relate to: the storage unit, the crocheting (but for me that’s more of a pandemic thing … ), being on the sea cliffs in winter (I LOVE DOING THAT!), leaving the group and walking off down the path alone, hugging a redwood, the way she relates to her family, the night she left the bed in the house and went out to sleep in her own bed in her van.
Otherwise I couldn’t see it the way other reviewers and viewers might see it, and that is probably because I’m too close to the subject.
That said, the film presents one story, the story of Fern, that I think other people (non-vanlifers) will or can appreciate, or relate to in some way. Some will find the film enlightening – about social issues and structure, about what happens when a person’s world falls apart, about exploitation. Films about subsets of society are important and need to be made – our lives need to be shown and experienced, celebrated and included. Just don’t stereotype us and paint all vanlifers with the same brush.
The film started streaming on Hulu February 19, 2021.
Have you seen the film? Did you enjoy it? Leave your mini-review in the comments below!
Edited for clarity: February 23, 2021
I’m planning on re-watching to see if my opinion changes.