Synopsis: Seniors living in vans travel from place to place to find work.
Nomadland is most decidedly not #vanlife. The people aren’t vivacious and sexy looking. The vans aren’t new and with bohemian-vibe customized interiors. No, these folks aren’t selfie-ing their way across America. Instead the movie follows people in their 60’s whose social security benefits haven’t kicked in or are inadequate to meet their modest lifestyles. They travel around the U.S. working temp jobs by day and sleeping in their vans by night.
Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century is the film’s basis. Director Chloe Zhao filmed over nearly five months in six Western states. Her jumping off point is the closing of the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada. A true company town, after the plant closed it became a ghost town; the company gave former workers five months to vacate company-owned tract housing. The ghost town looks so lonesome juxtaposed to the hollowed-out mining site with a chain of jagged mountains in the distance. For once, I thought that going to soulless Las Vegas might not be the saddest place to visit in Nevada.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a former plant employee whose late husband also worked at the mine. Fern has jerry rigged her old van to make the most of its limited space. Try as she might, having what amounts to a big closet as your home makes it difficult to live comfortably or healthfully. No fridge for greens, or cushy mattress. The bathroom is a utility bucket. Geez…. let me take a quick look at #vanlife on Instagram before I continue…
I don’t want to depress you about Fern’s living conditions too much. After all, she describes herself as houseless, not homeless. At least this is how she played things when she ran into a former neighbor who offered to let her stay over at her house. The friend’s tween daughter had awkwardly whispered to Fern, My mom says you’re homeless. Then Fern lunged at the girl whilst cursing a blue streak. Jk, Fern was perfectly nice about it, if a little embarrassed.
As if van living isn’t tough enough on Fern, we see her work on a series of physical jobs that are quite demanding on her and her fellow seniors. She works seasonal warehouse packaging, then heads south to look for work, rather than freeze to death at night in her van.
Fern meets up with fellow “nomads” at a get together in an Arizona desert RV park. It’s a chance for the nomads to exchange tips about self-sufficiency on the road, have swap meets and sing at nightly campfires.
Other than Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, most of the cast are real nomads and a few play (slightly fictionalized) versions of themselves. Fern’s guide into nomadlife is Linda May who wants to save enough money to buy some and build an environmentally low-impact house. She tells Fern her real-life story which included suicidal ideation that she overcame. Another person shares the story of his grief from his adult son’s suicide. It’s really sad…let me listen to some upbeat music for a bit before continuing …
Fern is outgoing and pleasant, listening to people’s stories of how they came to be nomads and going through the RV camp, offering coffee to strangers and new friends. Ms. Zhao’s approach feels a lot like a documentary and, in fact, some of the people who appear onscreen didn’t know that Frances McDormand was an actor. Furthermore, some of the cast and crew went really method and lived in vans or RVs during filming. Bet they couldn’t wait to get back to terra firma in LA. I can’t blame them.
Do you want to hear a little about the back breaking work that Fern and her fellow seniors do to eke out a living? No? Well, I’ll tell you anyway. Otherwise you will probably feel kinda guilty if you don’t pay attention to their plight. Fern works at some sort of rock farm where she hauls stones in buckets to a giant machine that pulverizes them or something. In the summer she works for a Parks Department program, helping to manage campsites. Great, right? Well… she does get to see some beautiful stone formations and grasslands. When she’s not busy cleaning vomit from the restrooms.
The second half of the movie is a little less documentary-style when Fern visits a family member. Also, when I saw the actor David Strathairn befriend Fern, I knew that he would do some heavy-lifting thespianism in the interest of the film’s narrative. I can see why his character Dave has a crush on Fern– she loves the life around her. But because of her widow’s grief, she keeps her distance from, well, regaining some sort of happiness. To be fair, being poor is no fun.
Chloe Zhao filmed some of nomad organizer Bob Wells’ talks on getting by under the “tyranny of the dollar.” And as if the film weren’t sober enough, besides the penury of some (most?) of the nomads, we get to contemplate the losses and grief and general weariness of elderly persons. Expect more than one montage of Frances as Fern, walking by herself through desolate streets, staring into the distance, and shivering in her van. Accompanied by delicate, plaintive piano.
Nomadland has much to contemplate: sustainable wages… extractive industries…elder care… Not surprisingly, I don’t have the answer to these complex problems. But I did figure out that Fern was indeed, homeless. And that living in a van or a tent is only fun if you don’t have to do it.
P.S. 2021 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Director (Chloe Zhao), Best Actress (Frances McDormand) & Best Adapted Screenplay (Chloe Zhao).