Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances Mcdormand, is a fictionalized rendering of a book by Jessica Bruder. The book is a nonfiction study of the emerging subculture of nomadic people who, mainly due to economic necessity, adopted the nomadic lifestyle of living in vans.
The movie focuses mainly on a woman named Fern (McDormand) who sets off in her van after her husband dies and the town in Nevada where they lived literally shuts down after losing a factory. The movie, while fictionalized, follows a documentary format. Indeed, it stars many actual nomads who are discussed in the book such as Bob Wells, who acts as a mentor for people new to the van lifestyle.
Since around the financial collapse of 2008, many people in late middle age and even older, became van-dwelling nomads. Some subsist on social security or savings but many work at a variety of temporary jobs all over the country. Amazon warehouses are a major employer of these folks, which is portrayed in the film and, much more comprehensively, in the book.
The movie was recently awarded a Golden Globes Award for Best Drama. While the acting (such as it is, as many characters are simply playing themselves) and cinematography are flawless. The lonely beauty of the American Southwest plays a major part in setting the mood. However, compared to the book, Nomadland tends to water down some important aspects of this lifestyle.
A Self-Reliant Loner
Frances McDormand expertly portrays low-key, earthy characters such as Fern. Her character here is still recovering from the heartbreak of losing her husband and home. The movie mainly depicts the challenges of life on the road and the creative ways nomads cope with everyday issues such as staying warm, going to the bathroom, and cooking.
The closest thing to a plot is that a fellow nomad is obviously interested in Fern and pursues her while she keeps him at a distance. There’s also a scene in which Fern visits her family and tensions from the past arise. These scenes all depict the conflict between the “normal” domestic way of life and the nomadic one. It suggests that living on the road for a long time makes one feel imprisoned by conventional life.
Led by Bob Wells, we see how the nomads form temporary yet close-knit communities. Many, like Fern, are fiercely independent loners who, nonetheless, take pleasure in one another’s company and who help each other out as much as possible.
Nomadland Downplays the Harsh Realities of Gig Work
In Jessica Bruder’s book, the modern nomadic lifestyle is explored as a kind of sociological study, with an emphasis on how economic hardship is forcing people to find new ways to survive. This is certainly obvious in the film as well. When Bob Wells makes his pitch to novice nomads, he preaches an ultra-individualistic philosophy of self-reliance and realizing that society isn’t going to take care of you.
The movie, though insightful about the motivations and personalities of its subjects, avoids looking too closely at what its subjects have to do to survive economically. This is most apparent when we see the nomads working in an Amazon warehouse. My first thought was, “Amazon actually let them film this?” The book, after all, pointed out how hard and exploitative these temporary gigs are, especially on older adults. Bruder describes, for example, how injuries on the floor are common.
In the film, however, we only see brief snippets of people working. And, significantly, the only words actually spoken about Amazon are positive, when Fern tells someone that the pay is good. The film, similarly shows a variety of mostly brief scenes of nomads working in different environments, such as a campground. In this manner, the film underplays one of the most significant facts about this lifestyle —it compels people to work very hard for relatively low wages and no benefits. In this manner, the living in van lifestyle of these contemporary nomads who rely on temp jobs can be seen as one branch of the emerging gig economy.
Vulture discusses this at length in an article, What Nomadland Gets Wrong About Gig Labor. Of course, it’s doubtful Amazon would have permitted filming in their facilities if it was portrayed in a less positive light. Or, perhaps, Zhao preferred not to focus on these issues, which would have made the film more political. As it is, the film is more about the expansive landscapes of the American West and the resourcefulness and community-mindedness of the nomads.
An Emerging Nation of Nomads?
Bruder’s book came out several years ago, and explains how many of the new breed of nomads were victims of the 2008 economic crisis. Today, many of the conditions of that decade have only worsened, made even more severe by businesses closed and jobs lost due to COVID. Even before the pandemic, issues such as homelessness and economic inequality have been steadily worsening. Thus, it’s likely that the lifestyle depicted in Nomadland will become more and more common.
Nomadland is currently streaming on Hulu. I recommend it, but you should definitely read the book to get a fuller picture.
My review of Nomadland on Goodreads
I also did a short podcast on Nomadland (the book).