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America, the (not always) beautiful

Nomadland reminds viewers that the freedom to choose the paths we walk may be more beautiful than the paths themselves


Francis McDormand in a scene from Nomadland Searchlight Pictures

America, the (not always) beautiful

In the wake of the Great Recession, thousands of men and women adopted nomadic lifestyles and took to the road in trailers, vans, and RVs to travel about America doing seasonal work.   

The true story of these modern “pioneers” was captured in the 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder. The book’s screen adaptation, Nomadland, is now streaming on Hulu and has generated plenty of buzz: It received six Academy Award nominations, including for best picture. One caveat: Nomadland’s R rating comes from one scene in which the main character floats naked and alone in a mountain stream.

In a thought-provoking way, the film tells the story of a fictitious character named Fern, played with superb solemnity by Academy Award winner Francis McDormand (Fargo). She joins this itinerant community after her husband’s death and her small town’s economic collapse. With its realistic storytelling style (the film features many nonprofessional actors), this film touches on the dark side of the American dream while upholding what is truly great about the nation.  

Some will use the movie to identify holes in America’s social safety net. To do so misses the more significant point: an intriguing portrait of Fern and her search for peace and meaning within the freedom her vagabond existence provides.  

As viewers will discover, Fern is no victim. While certainly poor, she is a nomad by choice, shunning at least three times the “confines” of a real house and more traditional lifestyle.

Chinese-American director Chloé Zhao (nominated for Oscars in three categories) penned the screenplay and has created in Fern one of the year’s most enigmatic and complex characters. Fern is both tender and tough, communal and yet a loner, practical but often pigheaded, straightforward but always a mystery. As a result, viewers never fully get to know Fern or the deeper answers she seeks.

What’s clear is that Fern is in pain. She chooses this nomadic lifestyle because of the peace she finds in communing with nature in “huge open spaces”—the context of the film’s nudity, which lasts a few seconds. The film also shows the gritty challenges of a nomadic lifestyle, such as having to use a bucket as a bathroom.

But the brilliance and beauty of Nomadland is that by not explaining Fern completely, viewers can better appreciate and celebrate her journey.

Christians understand life isn’t always neat and tidy. Strife will come, and we each must traverse our own rutty roads. Nomadland reminds viewers that America doesn’t promise pain-free journeys, but we are free to choose our own paths.

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