Warning: mild spoilers below
Do you remember what travel is like? I think I’ve forgotten after more than a year of pandemic living. Although the dream of going to see other people and places might be slowly reappearing, it is still not a reality for most. It was in this spirit of missing traveling and seeing people that I watched Nomadland.
The film, based on a novel by Jessica Bruder, portrays modern-day American nomads who travel the country, living out of vans, and working odd jobs to make ends meet. The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow from Empire, Nevada. She set out on the road after the plant where she and her husband had worked closed. But, Nomadland is about so much more than just an itinerant lifestyle. Fern’s story is one of loss, and we follow her as she continues to cope after the passing of her husband, the loss of her job, and the shuttering of the whole town in which she had lived.
Grief and loss are certainly significant elements running throughout the film. As we slowly discover, Fern and many of the other nomads, although traveling light in their vans, carry heavy emotional and psychological weight with them in the form of trauma, hardship, and grief. Many of them find themselves marginalized because of age, health, or poverty. But, in their journeys and relationships with their fellow nomads, they are able to find a new approach to life. They find support in one another in the midst of grief and loss. We see this especially in the community Fern joins called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a gathering for vandwellers established in Arizona by real-life nomad Bob Wells, who plays himself in the film.
Although she is initially reluctant to join, Fern eventually does for a time and seems pleasantly surprised to be among people with a similar approach to life. In one powerful scene, a group of nomads gathered around a campfire share the grief and loss that led them to choose van dwelling. One man is a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD; he feels like being out and away from city life helps him to be at peace. One woman has been van dwelling for the past two and a half years after the death of her father and grandfather. Another woman recounts how a friend and co-worker died just days before retiring, leaving behind an unused sailboat in his driveway. He is the one who encouraged her to not waste any time– not to leave her metaphorical sailboat in the driveway. In the wake of loss, either of loved ones or a way of life, these people chose to step away and find a new way of living, a more meaningful way of spending their time.
When I began Nomadland, I was struck by its bleakness. The scenery is stark, and the stories and struggles of Fern and the other nomads are the same. Many of these people have been pushed to the margins by a variety of factors, many of which are only multiplied in this time of pandemic. Yet, within that bleakness, there is a real beauty. And that beauty is embodied in the film’s wisdom figure, Bob Wells. Like the nomads around the campfire, they share with one another the struggles and losses that have led them to choose this different way of life. Fern shares the grief of losing her husband, her job, her home, her way of life. She has been trying to live in a way that keeps Bob’s memory alive.
Bob shares his own traumatic loss, of a son who died by suicide a few years prior. He recalls how he struggled to understand how to make sense of living on without him. In that struggle, he realized that he can honor his son by helping and serving people, especially this van dwelling population. It is this service, and these relationships, which return purpose to his life. He recognizes that so many of the van dwellers, especially since they are older, have experienced grief and loss. Bob takes comfort in that fact that in the van dwelling life there is no final goodbye. Instead, the farewell they always give is: “See you down the road.” Bob extends this even to the dead. He is certain he’ll see his son down the road and that Fern will see her husband.
So, despite the bleakness of these stories, I see Nomadland as an Easter movie. Our experience as Christians of moving through Lent and Holy Week and into Easter is one of confronting the tragedies of life with Christian hope. In that hope, we believe that tragedy and grief aren’t the end of the story.
Grief and loss are central themes in Nomadland. These, however, are not unique to the van dwelling population. They’re a part of the human experience. Grief is a particularly familiar reality in our lives at the moment. We have lost so many to COVID, and it is rare to find someone who has not mourned a friend or loved one in the past year. I know that I mourn not only the passing of some loved ones, including fellow Jesuits, but also the many changes we’ve experienced in our lives during the pandemic. We have spent so much time apart in the past year, whether that be loved ones we just haven’t seen in a while, or those who have passed away in the midst of this crisis. With its compelling characters and powerful words on grief, it’s easy for me to understand why Nomadland has been nominated for six Academy Awards. It speaks so powerfully to the experiences of tragedy that have been present to so many of us in this past year. Too, the wisdom of our Christian tradition harmonizes well with what Bob Wells shares that he has learned from his own experiences. There are no final goodbyes here; there is hope for restoration.
In one of the prefaces used at Masses for the dead, we are reminded that “life is changed, not ended.” Perhaps this is another way to describe the hopeful message of this film. It is true of those who have passed into death, but also for the way of life we might mourn having changed in these past months. Nomadland reminds us that there is reason for hope, even as we continue down what can be a difficult road. Those people we haven’t seen in a while, even those who we won’t see again this side of heaven, we look forward to a day we meet them face to face. This is the Christian hope we celebrate in this Easter season, the hope we are called to live and witness to. As Easter people, we can say with faith to God, our friends, and loved ones: see you down the road.