Nomadland – Above me, only a warm and sunny sky

23 April, 2021

Nomadland, which is the most serious contender in this year’s Oscars race, is a Malickian film about living simply and in tune with nature, which in this sense, is close to Days of Heaven (1978) or Badlands (1973). Chloé Zhao creates a docu-fiction based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fictional novel, Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which focuses on elderly nomads. Zhao’s addition consists of two fictional characters, whose paths are inspired by the stories recounted in Bruder’s book (Fern, performed by Frances McDormand, and Dave, performed by David Strathairn), who are joined by several of the novel’s central characters, who are real nomads (Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, etc). The docu-fictional mix which is also juggled by Zhao in her previous features, The Rider (2017) and Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), is sometimes faithful to reality, while at other times it denatures it towards dramatical purposes. For example, in the film, Swankie departs on a solo spiritual journey with her van after finding out that she is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and never returns from said trip, which is not valid in real life. There is something lawless in this ideal of setting out at large in the world on the hunt for landscapes, but things are much richer than that: the majority of these people are running away from personal traumas or the ghosts of their own failures within capitalist society. Fern, the protagonist, is a lone she-wolf that has remained homeless after the recession has wiped even the zip code of her former small suburban community off the face of the earth, and after her husband’s death due to cancer. McDormand is so discreet that she literally appears as a vehicle through which the voices of marginals can be heard – it’s a way of diminishing the subject in favor of her surrounding environment.


The film’s detractors claim that they’ve seen settings just like this before; I will contradict them with the very simple argument that the picaresque films of the past couple of years are not about people who are above 60, and things tend to radically change when this is the card that is being played. A second point would be that recent films about vagrancy (such as Into the Wild (2007), Wild (2014), and so on) regard protagonists that embrace the fact of living in nature towards an intermittently therapeutic goal, for them to take time to grieve and then to return, refreshed, to the same cocoon which they had previously left. This is not the case; Zhao speaks here about a very specific generation, that of the baby boomers, composed of people that have lost everything in the recession of the late aughts, and have never since then had the chance to raise themselves up again. Beyond the political suppleness with which Zhao constructs her film, this lifestyle is less a romantic choice than it is a context that is impossible to manage otherwise. You would think that these people are simply rejecting any kind of social structure, but it is the very same people that are the turning cogs within capitalism, working in all sorts of joints that lie in the proximity of trailer parks, or for the world’s most potent nomad employee, the mammoth-sized Amazon. It’s not a life lived in contemplation, above us only a warm and sunny sky, but rather, it’s a constant struggle with precariat – these are not people who have renounced capitalism, but rather, people who are still preyed upon by capitalism.


And then there’s also the social pressure to set yourself straight, to “reprise” your social trajectory, to find a new family, and to live in a normal house. The manner in which Zhao paints is maybe a bit too conventional: Fern is courted by a rather clumsier nomad, Dave. This plot point creates certain expectations that have to do with the ways in which we are accustomed to seeing films and stereotypical character arcs, of the boy-meets-girl ilk; for Zhao, things are not as simplified as in those cases, but she lingers long enough on this trope for the spectator to still expect a romantic resolution. For a film that heavily uses traveling shots and incursions in the vastness of the desert, with a lamp in hand while dressed in a white pajama, Nomadland seems too didacticized: it searches for the ideal time of day in which the sun barely illuminates the character’s heads, reprising certain passing narrative fragments to induce the feeling of a spider web (for example, Fern runs again into a young man to whom she’d lent a lighter a few months prior and ends up reciting his wedding vows). It’s no wonder that the film is haunted by romantic vignettes – it’s something that is very constructed, especially in scenes where strangers are met, but Fern’s trajectory becomes conventional along the road, which is something that at the same time shatters the sense of surprise and improvisation; the film ends on a final journey through the ruins of the community where she once lived with her husband, where the dust has settled on the abandoned desks. The metaphor of dinosaurs, which is systematically reprised throughout the film, has something to do with a primitive lifestyle onto which contemporary society’s base was constructed and which, indirectly, is a sort of nod towards the idea that alternate societies that are just as viable as this one should also be constructed, without the two types having to mutually contradict each other.


Journalist and film critic, with a master's degree in film critics. Collaborates with Scena9, Acoperișul de Sticlă, FILM and FILM Menu magazines. For Films in Frame, she brings the monthly top of films and writes the monthly editorial Panorama, published on a Thursday. In her spare time, she retires in the woods where she pictures other possible lives and flying foxes.


Director/ Screenwriter