For many of us, the word means more than just the walls and roof that protect us. It speaks to comfort, family, belonging. It is, as the old cliché tells us, where the heart is.
But for some, home is very different. Very different indeed.
For years, Fern called Empire, Nevada, home. She and her husband, Bo, lived there for decades, working at the local gypsum plant and making a life together.
But then Fern’s husband died and the plant closed down. The town’s entire zip code—89405—was discontinued. Home, for Fern, wasn’t the same any more. It was barely there at all.
So Fern sells her house to buy a van, sells or stores most of her belongings and hits the road, searching for something she doesn’t yet know how to recognize. Peace, maybe. Contentment. Freedom. Something different than what she’s known for so long.
And different it is.
Fern travels from town to town, state to state, looking for seasonal work: At an Amazon fulfillment center over Christmas. A campground in South Dakota’s Badlands during the summer. Other stops. Other jobs. She packs boxes and washes toilets, cooks burgers and cleans mirrors. And along the way, she meets people a lot like her—people who live in their vans, slowly crawling through America, a paycheck and a rest stop at a time.
Early in her travels, Fern runs into a girl whom she used to tutor, in a store with her mother. “My mom says you’re homeless,” the girl asks Fern. “Is that true?”
Fern smiles. “I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?”
Perhaps in her old, beat-up van, where she uses a box as a China hutch and a bucket for a toilet, Fern has found a new home after all.
The lifestyle that Fern and her fellow Nomads (as they’re called here) embrace certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste. And it feels to me an inherently amoral decision—neither good nor bad in itself. But the movie does emphasize certain values that often go underappreciated in our stuff-centric culture, and it reminds us that people, not possessions, are what we should really value.
“We workhorses had to gather together and take care of each other,” someone says during a makeshift Nomad convention. We see that care in action: A woman named Linda takes Fern under her wing and helps teach her the ropes of this unusual lifestyle, even helping her find jobs along the way. Swankie, another vagabond, encourages Fern to fix her “ratty” van. (Fern in turn helps care for Swankie, who’s dying from cancer.) All along the way we see members of this rolling community care for one another while still fiercely protecting their freedom and autonomy.
[Spoiler Warning] But the movie reminds us that community and family can be found in more traditional places, too. David, a longtime Nomad who takes a shine to Fern, ultimately reunites with his estranged family and moves in with them. For him, home becomes a much more traditional one.
Bill Wells, who’s become something of a leader for the Nomad community, talks about his belief in the afterlife. “One of the things I love about this life is there’s no final goodbye.” He believes that everyone he’s lost, he’ll meet again. So instead of goodbye, Bill says, “See you down the road.” The phrase becomes a coda for the movie itself, which was “dedicated to the ones who had to depart. See you down the road.”
We hear religious Christmas carols, and witness a Thanksgiving prayer. Someone refers to the “10 Commandments” of Nomads. Fern attends a starlight lecture, where the ranger encourages participants to look at their hands. “There are atoms from stars that blew up eons ago, now in your hands.”
Someone tells Fern that a local church offers a place for the homeless to sleep on cold nights—and it’ll be very cold on the night in question. (Fern says she’ll be fine in her van.)
Fern floats naked in a mountain lake. While not designed to be erotic, viewers are exposed to full-frontal nudity. We see Fern’s exposed hip and side of her buttocks when she goes to the bathroom, too. We see someone in their underwear.
David invites Fern to stay with him—making them an unmarried couple, I suppose. But the most real intimacy we see between the two of them is when David looks into Fern’s eyes and admits, “I like being around you.”
We see a shirtless man.
Nomadland is almost completely free of visually violent scenes. The most violent moment in the film is when someone pulls a box out of someone’s van, and the dishes inside the box fall and crash to the ground.
But death, particularly suicide, is referenced often. One Nomad says he found the road after his son killed himself. Another says that she was suicidal herself: She describes how she was going to drink until she passed out. “If I woke up, I was going to light a cigarette and blow myself up.” She found, though, that she couldn’t do that to her dogs, so she took to the road, instead.
Fern confesses how hard it was to watch her husband, Bo, die—and how she thought often about manipulating his morphine drip machine to give him more of the stuff, thus killing him. “Maybe he wouldn’t have wanted that,” a friend of Fern’s suggests. “Maybe he wanted to stay with you as long as he could.” Another Nomad talks about how a coworker worked all of his life in order to have a great retirement, but he was dying before he ever even got to that stage. “He told me before he died, ‘Don’t waste any time.’”
As mentioned, Swankie is dying of cancer, and we can sometimes see the disease’s impact on her. But Swanki says she didn’t want to spend any more of her life in a hospital and wants to see more of the country before she goes. She mentions that she keeps a book written by Dr. Kevorkian (perhaps the country’s best-known proponent of euthanasia), and if the suffering gets too bad, she plans to take her own life.
One s-word and two uses of the word “b–ch.” Jesus’ name is abused once, as well.
Fern smokes quite a bit. David at one point offers her some licorice, suggesting to her that it’ll make it easier to quit. “I can’t smoke licorice sticks, Dave,” an annoyed Fern says. (Others smoke, too.)
Fern and others down shots in a bar. Characters drink wine over dinner. People sip beer at a get-together. Fern meets a group of much younger, dreadlocked vagabonds, one of whom smokes a pipe. Another member of the traveling squad asks Fern if she might have an extra cigarette. A band sings about drinking to “the friends who had to go away.” Someone says that Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are fantastic ways to meet people on the road. Fern pours a bit of liquor into her lemonade.
One of the 10 Commandments of the Nomadic lifestyle is, we’re told, “Dealing with your own s—.” We see, intimately, how Fern deals with it, as she squats over a toilet and is fairly appalled by the smell. (At an informal seminar, someone discusses what sorts of buckets make the best commodes.)
We see Fern squat by the side of the road, as well. When she’s working as an attendant for a national park campground, she cleans some truly disgusting toilets. In another scene, she’s cleaning a bathroom when a man barges in and uses the urinal, unwilling to listen to Fern’s protestations.
Is home just a word? Or is it something that you carry within you?
Nomadland asks these questions of us early on, and we’re left with the rest of the movie to wonder. The film follows Fern through a full year of her travels; and as she changes, our perception of her may well change a bit, too.
When we see her celebrate the New Year early on—a pitiful cardboard tiara on her head, a tiny sparkler in hand—we feel sorry for her. By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around again and is observed in much the same way, we understand the quirky beauty and even dignity in the moment. And perhaps a few in the audience, living in big houses that don’t satisfy and with workweeks that stretch to 60 or 70 hours, might wonder whether they, not Fern, should be the ones to be pitied.
Released when the coronavirus is still making noise around the world, Nomadland is a strange movie for a strange time: As many shelter in place, the film gives us an open road. As we lie in seclusion, it offers curious, quirky community. And in an age of fabrication, the film feels real—as tactile and as gritty as the earth underneath Fern’s van. Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (Fern), David Strathairn (David) and perhaps a few others are the only real “actors” on screen: Linda and Swankie and Bob Wells are real-life Nomads. The cast and crew of the movie lived in vans throughout most of the production.
This movie has its problems. Like Fern’s van (which she’s named “Vanguard”), Nomadland can get pretty scruffy. Bathroom habits are on full display here. Language—while remarkably restrained for an R-rated movie—still has its rough spots. One scene of graphic (though not titillating) nudity pushes Nomadland into R-rated territory.
But maybe that’s just as well. Some teens, upon seeing Fern’s unfettered lifestyle, might be tempted to track down a van of their very own. Honestly, some adults might, too. But internet service is spotty in some of Fern’s most favorite haunts. So where would you read Plugged In then?
It’s little surprise that the film is getting such strong awards-season buzz. Both lyrical and earthy, Nomadland strikes a chord, forcing audiences to consider what they value … and what they should.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.