Loss can feel like a nowhere land of moving aimlessly from feeling to feeling, place to place, inside your mind. You’ve lost the home you know, with a person that you love. There’s sadness, anger, memories – as you grapple with the challenges of an uprooted life. Chloé Zhao’s Best Picture nominee, Nomadland, takes us there, with Frances McDormand’s Fern leading the way through the open expanses of loss. Loss is a journey, not unlike the one Fern takes in her trusty van, Vanguard. And, in the film’s hopeful story of Fern and other nomads she meets, what do we learn about grief?
A Lonely Nomad’s Land of Loss
Beau died. The recession hit. In 2011, Fern lost her job when the US Gypsum plant shut down in Empire, Nevada. She’d worked there for years, alongside Beau, and stayed.
With nowhere to go and no house to live in, Fern builds out a van – Vanguard, she calls him – stores her unnecessary belongings, hugs an old jacket of Beau’s close to her heart, gives it a kiss, and hits the road. After all, she doesn’t need much of anything now, right?
Fern sings a Christmas carol as she sets off to her temporary holiday job at an Amazon Warehouse. There she meets a friendly Linda May who takes her in and introduces Fern to all her co-workers. One, a tattooed woman, sports a tattoo that reads: “Is home just a word or something you carry within you?” Well … home was Beau.
Linda May, who lives in a van too, tells Fern how she found Bob Wells and nomad life. She draws a map to Arizona where Bob’s support group gathers “for people that need help.” “No,” Fern says, “I’m not going to come.” She can’t allow any need. Not now.
“I’m Fine, I Don’t Need Anything”
“Don’t worry about me, I’m fine” is all Fern can say to concerned friends. Offered a church bed when it’s freezing outside: “No, thanks. I’m going to be good …” That’s what she tells herself. Trying to rely on anyone is scary when you’ve already lost so much.
Yet, out on the road, really alone for the first time, a sudden instinct takes her to Arizona, to Bob Wells’ welcoming group, and her new friend, Linda May.
We watch Fern, as people share their stories of hardship. She wants to join in, hungry for contact, but she holds back. Bob says: “I think you’ve come to the right place. Real community, a Tribe, makes all the difference.” Can she let it?
Not now. As soon as Fern makes a connection, there’s a quick “Bye.” Loss makes you scared of opening up. You tell yourself: “I don’t need anything,” even when you do. Linda May and Swankie, help. Dave (David Strathairn) too, but he’s scarier.
As Ferne and Dave dance, “Fall in love again” plays. No. Not now.
If Only Love Was Never Saying Goodbye
“Are you married?” a woman at the RV park asks. “Yes, I am. But my husband died.” She points to Fern’s wedding band: “That ring is a circle and it never ends and you may not be able to take it off if you tried.” Fern smiles through tears: “I don’t think I can.”
Fern’s still with Beau, but she does need friends. When you’re a nomad, though, going from place to place, scavenging for work, running into problems along the way, it’s not easy to keep up with friends. Maybe that’s safer? Yet, nomads take care of each other.
When Fern gets a flat tire, Swankie sets her right: “You don’t have a spare? You’re out here in the wilderness. Take it seriously. You have to be able to change your own tire.”
Being a lonely Nomad means no ties, no roots, no more loss. But out on the road, in the land of other nomads, there are people who understand. Bob Wells tells her, with tears:
“My son took his life 5 years ago … I couldn’t understand how I could be in this world when he was not … Now, I love this life. I never have to say goodbye. It’s just, ‘I’ll see you.’ It might be a few months, a year, a few years … but I always see them down the road.”
What Does It Take to Open Up to Love Again?
It’s scary to open up to love again. There’s fear of your memories fading. There’s guilt that makes you feel you could have done more: “Maybe I should have pressed that morphine drip a little harder, let him go sooner so he wasn’t in so much pain.”
Swankie reassures: “Maybe he wanted to stay with you as long as he could.” Fern too: “I couldn’t pack up and move on. I couldn’t leave [Beau] … we didn’t have kids … if I left, it would be like he never existed, so I stayed as long as I could.” Then, there’s Dave.
Dave’s guilt could make him miss a new opportunity with his son, James (Tay Strathairn), soon to be a father himself. “He didn’t like it that I wasn’t around much when he was young. I guess I forgot how to be a dad.” “Go now,” Fern tells him, “be a Grandpa.” “You want to come with me?” Dave asks. “Maybe I can visit sometime. Bye.”
Fern does visit Dave and hears him play a piano duet with James. Some people you don’t have to lose. Yet, a trusting new baby can put his hand in yours. But to let someone new fill the big hole that’s been left when the person you love dies? No, not yet.
Fern leaves quickly, silently, and without her usual “Bye.”
Moving on “Down the Road” From Loss
It’s a year later. Fern takes off from the Amazon Warehouse for Swankie’s Memorial. Before she died, Swankie taught Fern about moving on, as she remembered kayaking:
“Swallows were flying all around, reflecting on the water so it looked like I’m flying with [them] under me, over me, all around me, little babies hatching out and eggshells falling out of nests, landing on the water. It was just so awesome … I felt my life was complete.”
Nothing can take away your memories. And, there can be a new life. It just means being open (as nomads are), to who you’ll meet next, down the road. Fern tearfully touches Beau’s photo. A song plays: “Love is here to stay …” There are goodbyes, but memories and love don’t stop. Getting into Vanguard, she heads back to Empire, to let go.
Fern walks through their old house one last time. Opening the front door, she looks out at the wide, open space of land going forever, with “nothing in the way.”
As Ferne’s dad said: “What’s remembered, lives.” On the road again, is Ferne ready to head towards Dave? Maybe. If you’ve grieved, nothing’s in the way. Nomadland’s ending dedication says it all: “to the ones who had to depart. See you down the road…”