Nomadland — the (un)review

My experience watching Nomadland from the perspective of a 55-year-old guy who lives in a van.

Life is a collection of stories, most of them untold. Snapshots of time spent looking out of a window at the world. The stories people subconsciously know at least something about, but never quite put two-and-two together until they become the story themselves. Stories of solitude and the vast emptiness all around us. Stories of the silent surrender to our own timeless insignificance. Stories of awakening to the state of what it means to be human; alone in a crowded world. Nomadland is one of those.

In the background of our lives there’s a distant telling from a different perspective. You can’t put your finger on it. But somehow you find yourself living your life at a fever pitch with no end in sight. And just when you discover you’re old, and life’s shedding leaves like winter is coming, you become aware of how alone you truly are. Looking out the window of your life you find yourself staring back at you on a rainy day.

The haunting theme song for Nomadland, by Italian Pianist Ludovico Einaudi, captures the emotion behind the film. The song, “Oltremare” which means “Overseas”, is befitting the touching nature of Fern’s journey across the Western US in search of something we all look for but rarely ever find — contentment. The song, drenched in the mystery of a seafarer’s journey — from still seas through stormy skies — never reaching port. If you listen closely you can sense melancholy and imagine what it must be like to wander aimlessly in the desert. Some may hear the rain just outside the window of life. Nomadland takes you to a place few ever witness. Some places are wet, some cold, and some are empty. But you can find yourself there if you put your mind to it.

Director Chloé Zhao has done something remarkable with her interpretation of the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder. For some, the images of people living in vehicles isn’t new and the faces of those boldly taking to the road alone in their vans, is the story of modern-day pioneers. To others, it’s a failure of society to save a place at the table for everyone. As we grow old and realize that many of life’s nuances have fallen through the cracks; we experience nostalgia, and regret missed opportunities.

The “Vanlife” experience has been glorified incessantly for years now on Instagram. Those of us who have been alone in a van in the middle of nowhere will see the movie as a work of art that’s closer to our reality than any previous depiction. There’s a lot of sobering reality, mixed in with moments of raw clarity. For those thinking of embarking on their own Vanlife journey it’s a wakeup call.

One of the characters in the movie is Bob Wells, who is a familiar face among us vandwellers as the voice of CheapRVLiving. Bob has been living in a van for decades, and he’s been helping others for years on their own nomadic journey via his website, book, and YouTube Channel. He’s a Vanlife Icon to many. Bob has one of the most memorable lines in the movie:

“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. You know, I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road’”. — Bob Wells

Whether you consider going nomad or not, life comes at you anyway. Later in life, many decide to embrace their elderhood while others are too busy finding a place to park for the night. It’s sobering to watch Nomadland’s glimpse into America’s peak prosperity where factories close down turning cities into ghost towns. Fern says that something remembered never dies. And in a sense, we become the ghosts after all.

If life is a beautiful song, then Nomadland is a poem that celebrates the songs we all make regardless of our individual struggles. In terms of dramatic story telling, Nomadland speaks softly without sugar-coating the truth about vanlife. In fact, it means to open your eyes. It also speaks to the struggle most face with an unsustainable and unstable economic future without pointing fingers.

In the end we have to deal with the memory of our own lives. Not all the memories are noteworthy to the rest of the world, but every one of them make up a sky full of stars.

Nomadland (2020) | Now Streaming on Hulu or in Theaters

After losing everything in the Great Recession, a woman embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.


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