When I lived in a van full-time before the pandemic, I visited San Diego, a place where it was common to find people in their cars. The city’s year-round warm weather enabled a booming community to live in vans and RVs as a lifestyle choice. At the same time, a housing shortage and high rental prices forced others to live in their vehicles because they had nowhere else to turn.
These groups, despite their differences, regularly shared the same spaces, and the boundaries between them were often blurred. They all lived with wheels below them on public properties and along coastal roads, but for many the privilege was a great – and often hidden – partition.
As vanlife grows in popularity across the country, those who are forced to live in vehicles, especially the elderly, can be overlooked and forgotten. Nomadland, a new feature film about die-hard baby boomers who took to the streets after the 2008 financial crash, grants them an overdue moment of appreciation.
The film follows Fern (played by Frances McDormand), a widow in her sixties who lives in an old van that she uses to find seasonal work across the country. Fern once worked for the US Gypsum Corporation in Empire, Nevada before the company went bankrupt and Empire left a ghost town. With little or no savings, she set off.
(Photo: Courtesy Searchlight Pictures)
While he’s on the road, Fern meets others trying to make the most of the tumultuous third act of their lives and trudges over the shards of what remains of a crumbling American dream. She attends an event called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Arizona where she meets Bob Wells (played by the man himself), a YouTube personality who is a Legend in the real shared apartment. Far is just another “workhorse”, as Wells describes people like her, “who are willing to work themselves to death and then go to pasture”. They have to stick together to survive. “That’s what this is about,” Wells says of the meeting, where attendees teach others the basics of street life: how to maintain their vans, find safe places to sleep, and build their own toilets.
Fern is the forgotten woman of our time. She is older than middle age, lives alone and still works with no hope of retirement in sight. When we meet her, she has a job in an Amazon fulfillment warehouse and lives in a RV park that the company pays for. When her employment contract expires in winter – along with the scholarship she receives from Amazon to rent the space – she will have to move. She takes odd jobs all over the country, polishing stones in a minerals store, cleaning toilets as a hostess, grilling burgers in a coffee shop and harvesting sugar beets.
Like many Americans her age, Fern built her life on a single company she could rely on for everything: income, housing, health insurance, and security. Immediately everything disappeared. Anyone who has ever lost their job knows the utter helplessness you feel when suddenly you are responsible for the benefits that you once outsourced to a company. This movie will resonate with everyone who has been there – and if you’ve lived through the great recession and COVID-19 pandemic, your chances are good.
After I was laid off from my job in 2018, my wife and I sold what we could and swapped our apartment for a used Ram ProMaster, where we lived in a homemade RV for almost two years. Our 72-square-meter living space had no temperature control, so we followed the mild weather across the country in every season – winter, summer – and occasionally joined nomad caravans, but often lived isolated in the wilderness or crept on overnight City streets. We considered ourselves incredibly privileged when we, a pair of childless millennials who could work remotely, decided to live this way.
The film gently hints at the tension between those lucky enough to live on the streets for fun and those who do it to survive.
Nomadic living has become fashionable in recent years due to the increase in teleworking and the technology that makes it possible. The ubiquity of social media contributed to this surge, documenting the phenomenon using soothing filters to hide its blemishes and flaws. (I’m not without sin, either.) The hashtag #vanlife fills Instagram with thirsty photos of sun-drenched twenties doing yoga handstands on $ 100,000 rigs in a magical world where the golden hour is always. It is a fantasy land of eternal youth, full of beautiful people who seem to spend an extraordinary amount of time without pants.
Nomadland is not about these people. In fact, there are hardly any young people in the film. Instead, it tells a much-needed, unfiltered story of nomadic life. For many, mobile living isn’t about a lifestyle, chasing adventure, or becoming an influencer, it’s about necessity, survival, and grit. There are no sponsored posts, no hashtags, no likes.
The film gently hints at the tension between those lucky enough to live in their vehicles for fun and those who do it to survive. When Fern and some friends take a tour of a new luxury motorhome, they dream of what it would be like to have a good life in something so refined and travel for pleasure rather than necessity. “It’s like being in a disco,” one of the women wonders once in the palace complex, which has several bedrooms and even a washer-dryer. “Oh my God!”
Those who have spent time on the road will recognize moments when Nomadland is getting it right: sometimes you get diarrhea in your van when, of course, you run out of toilet paper. Flat tires occur when thunderclouds gather overhead. Strange men knock on your door at night while you sleep and tell you to go. Friends and family just don’t understand why you’re doing it.
In an early scene, Fern takes a moment to rest in a sports shop – if you live outside, any time in the house feels like a treat – and an old friend who goes shopping with her daughter sees her.
“Are you still doing the van thing?” The friend asks Fern. “We care about you.”
When Fern says that she is fine, the daughter turns to her and says: “My mother says you are homeless. Is that true?”
“I’m not homeless,” replies Fern. “I’m just without a house.”
Nomadland is not a documentary, but it’s easy to forget that while watching it. McDormand is one of the few professional actors to appear in it. The rest of the cast is made up of real-life nomads playing versions of themselves, and they do it surprisingly well. Wells plays a prominent role, as does Linda May, who viewers can recognize from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, on which the film is based. Much like Fern, the real Linda May, single and in her sixties, lived all day in a small RV she called “The Squeeze Inn” and worked her way around the country as a camp host. The choice of showing ordinary people and shooting on location in places like South Dakota’s Badlands and the Arizona desert allowed the film to showcase a true subculture and highlight the economic forces that created it.
(Photo: Courtesy Searchlight Pictures)
Director Chloé Zhao took a reserved, unorthodox approach to making nomad land. The film’s crew – including Zhao – lived in vans alongside the nomads in the film and asked those who played themselves to tell their personal stories in their own words. In one scene, Fern joins a group of people sitting around the campfire and listens to them living as nomads, a powerful, non-written part of the film.
“They were 100 percent real,” Wells told me. “I know these people. I know their stories. I’ve heard it before. What you saw around the campfire were these people and their lives. “
At its best, the film captures the bizarre rhythms of street life, while Fern vacillates between periods of joyful fellowship and moments of crushing loneliness that seem to have no end. Friends are gone as fast as they appear, only leaving dust behind when they head for warmer weather or a new job. Many parts of Nomadland were filmed during the sunset hours, a choice that throws a beautiful but haunting hue over the scenes. The calm style is mesmerizing In the same way, if you spend most of your time on a road that goes elsewhere, you will get dizzy. Where exactly? In no particular place. The next place. There is always a next place.
Nomadland will be available in Hulu and in theaters on February 19.
Main Photo: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures