“These are trailer people! I have a feeling they will help us out.”
Says my father to me as I squat in the dark, my headlamp spotlighting my work in amateur waste disposal on the icy asphalt. I am struggling with two large black plastic tubes, collapsible like accordions, whose ends I am supposed to connect between the rear of the travel trailer and two holes in the ground to the side of our parking spot. There are two tanks of bad water to empty, known in the trailering world by the euphemisms of “gray” and “black.” The gray is your dishwater, your washing-your-hands-and-brushing-your-teeth water, and the black is your very own waste—your life’s work—which, preferably, should not come in contact with any one of your five senses. There’s also a small spout and plastic garden hose to hook up to fresh water. I wear disposable plastic gloves and my COVID mask and do not understand what I am doing wrong: bad water is not going out, good water is not going in.
This travel trailer is a rental, a compromise with my father’s dream of owning one, and the trip is a trial run of “van life” with his two adult sons. I doubt we will actually take many trips together, and I also don’t think he, at almost seventy, should be doing them alone. In any case, since moving back to California before the start of the pandemic, I’ve seen and heard more and more of the phenomenon. On roadsides, in Facebook ads—win a travel van from Willie Nelson!—and in stories one hears about the growing numbers of people, young and old, who forgo the comforts of fixed dwellings in exchange for a nomadic life in RVs, trailers, vans or even sedans. For some, it’s a retirement plan; for others, an Instagrammable adventure or an experiment in minimalist living; for still others, a financial necessity. Quite often, in cities, it is the larger, hidden side of homelessness.
My father wants to at least get a taste of this life on the road. It is beautiful. Every day we follow the horizon, observe the steady changes in the landscape. On this brief trip we’ve experienced each place—Needles, California, the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park—as intimately as if we were camping, although with more of a semblance of civilization. To the right of our trailer now is a massive deluxe RV bus. It could easily fit fifty people, but is here outfitted for the comfort of four, with little perches that extend out; its two-story top towers over our truck and trailer. And to our left is a little white van occupied by a young couple and covered with stickers touting their travels.
In each of these three spaces is a segment of the nomad population, which now seems to be everywhere I look in the West. The demographic is the focus of Nomadland, the newly-crowned winner of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress at the 2021 Academy Awards. The film is based on the real lives of poor working older people in the wake of the 2008 crash. Some reviewers, especially on the left, have seen its ambiguous portrayal of working at Amazon as a political compromise, or even as pro-Amazon propaganda. But this is a mistake: in its searching portrait of a nomadic woman’s life—with its insecurity, its proximity to nature, its economic difficulties and occasional joys—and in the fictionalized telling of real American experiences, Nomadland is a far better mirror of our social realities than these critiques allow.
Nomadland was written, directed and edited by Chloé Zhao—a veteran independent filmmaker—and loosely based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Our heroine is a working-class white woman in her sixties named Fern, played by Frances McDormand. We follow her over the course of slightly more than a year, beginning some time in 2011, as she wanders throughout the desolate landscapes of the West, stopping for a few months or weeks at a time for seasonal work. With only a few exceptions, the characters in the movie are real people playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The understated performances from both pro and non-pro actors and the cinematographer Joshua James Richards’s roaming, handheld camerawork blur the line between documentary and drama.
Early on, we see Fern attending a van “boot camp” where nomads (their own term) receive lessons in how to survive. The camp is led by a man named Bob Wells, a kind of nomad John the Baptist who thinks “economic times are changing” and the “Titanic is sinking,” and that he has to help the old “workhorses” band together. In an impassioned speech, he describes his organizing as a “support system for people who need help now.” The comradery among the participants is moving, but there’s also an unmistakable current of sadness as each of them describes the circumstances that led them to make this leap into a radically unfamiliar life. Fern embodies this melancholy more than most—invited by her friend (and real-life nomad) Linda May to attend, she at first declines, then arrives late, then holds herself apart during their campfire gatherings. When the little community packs up to caravan elsewhere, Fern declines to join that, too.
She was not always so itinerant. During the opening shots of the film, we’re told that Fern launched into the desert in her van after the closing of the U.S. Gypsum quarry in Empire, Nevada in 2011.1 She and the other workers (92 people according to Bruder’s reporting) lost their jobs, and the tiny town itself—entirely dependent on the company—emptied out. Even the zip code was removed from the U.S. postal registry. Already in her sixties when the disaster struck, Fern sold all but a few possessions, bought herself a used Ford Econoline (giving it the nickname “Vanguard”) and set off as a migrant.
Like the book on which it is based, Nomadland is a story about the ripple effects of the Great Recession. It encompasses the slow death of both American manufacturing and the concomitant dream of suburban homeownership, as well as the rise of the uncertain new freedoms of the gig economy. Unlike Bruder’s book, however, which explicitly addresses these larger topics as it documents the experiences of middle-aged van-dwellers, Zhao’s adaptation shows this life from within, through the eyes of a fictional woman who sees her newly impoverished condition as a form of agency. What we see suggests Fern is on some kind of quest to escape her past, or live out some dream that’s survived from it, or find something more solid than what she had. The search takes her across some of the most sublime landscapes in the Western states, and it is a pity that most of us have only been able to see these slow, beautiful shots on small screens.
The focus on Fern’s private longing does not mean the film avoids hard social facts. The hero is constantly applying and being turned down for work, and when a clerk at an employment office tells her that she’s unsure what job Fern would be qualified for and it is time she retired, Fern replies flatly that she can’t get by on the benefits. At another point, Linda May relates her shock at the paltry monthly check for five hundred dollars and change she got from Social Security after a lifetime of employment (she narrowly talks herself out of committing suicide in the wake of this). Fern pointedly asks her brother-in-law, an upper-middle-class real-estate agent, whether it was wrong for people like him to sell houses to families who couldn’t afford to make the payments—for a moment we see a glimpse of anger from the effects of the crash. In Nomadland we hear and see again and again the broken contract of American work. These characters are people who have given their bodies up to their jobs—and in Fern’s case, celebrated the community of labor that sprung up around it in towns like Empire—but now that they’re old workhorses, there’s nothing they can expect in return.
The strength of the film is that it illustrates these large questions of America’s post-recession reality through a protagonist who both has her own agenda and is uncertain what she wants. McDormand’s Fern is an unapologetically, unglamorously aging woman. We see her tired, tousled, perhaps not eating or feeling well, and we cannot help wondering how much of this is the direct result of her lifestyle, which all her old friends and family see as desperation and homelessness. Despite two separate opportunities over the course of the film to leave her van to live under a roof with people who care for her, she refuses, for reasons we can only guess. Although we are intimate witnesses to her cramped living quarters and her work cleaning bathrooms or packing boxes, neither Zhao nor Fern are eager to bare the character’s soul to us. This opacity feels at times like a provocation, perhaps to force us to imagine what drives her on. Zhao and her crew, in lyrical but precise detail, show Fern navigating a network of broken yet intractable American narratives. It is an emotional and personal story, not intended to be political, but—as the debate around the movie has shown—saying almost anything about it requires addressing the movie’s vision of our present.
To my mind, having spent a few years studying Soviet literature, Fern recalls characters from Andrei Platonov’s stories, pursuing the redemptive power of work without the faith many of Platonov’s characters have in a redemptive collective future. In many of his stories, characters immerse themselves in labor to wear out their bodies and their “troubled hearts.” Things that we might guess trouble Fern’s heart include: the death of her husband, her childless marriage, the collapse of her community in Empire, a life spent away from her sister and the rest of her family, the difficulty of finding work, the difficulty of moving on. Platonov’s characters likewise wander through harsh landscapes in search of some kind of home. A description of the hero of his best-known novel, The Foundation Pit, could equally be applied to Fern: “In place of hope all that remained to him was endurance.” Fern still wears her wedding ring and calls herself “married” to a dead husband, not a “widow.” The mysterious, fortune-teller-esque woman she tells this to replies: “That ring is a circle and it never ends. And that means that your love never ends. And you may not be able to take it off if you tried.” One of Nomadland’s riddles is whether Fern can take off that ring—and whether she even wants to. Is her unfinished marriage only to a man, or also to the man who was loved in her union town, to whatever vision of community she lost there? Where Platonov’s characters are often survivors of capitalism who are trying to fit into a new socialist world with its own hardships, Zhao’s characters have outlived one American dream and are now seeking out a new one in the ruins.
Although it isn’t mentioned in the film, Fern would have had a union job at U.S. Gypsum. Good benefits, a pool, a golf course—at one point, she lists these perks, and we hear the pride in her voice. The mid-century deal with corporate America. These days the offer has changed. The movie is bookended by Fern’s work at Amazon. At the beginning, after Fern has packed up and set out on the road, her first stop is their “CamperForce” program, through which the company hires itinerant, often older, workers. We see Fern some early morning at an Amazon fulfillment center in Nevada, surrounded by the din of the busy warehouse and the eyesore yellow of the company branding. She walks through the scene with purpose but not haste—maybe luxuriating in all this indoor space, such a contrast to her narrow home. She smiles as she makes her rounds and calls out jokingly to Linda May. Knowing all of the widespread, real-world reports of the terrible working conditions at Amazon (something that Bruder’s book goes into particular detail about) this may surprise or even shock us. But for Fern it looks like a walk in the park.
In her Jacobin review, Eileen Jones faults Nomadland for its portrayal of Amazon, and more generally for Zhao’s ostensibly apolitical approach to her subject matter. By presenting a kind of “utopian” vision of van life within the “dystopian” U.S. economic landscape, Jones writes, Zhao has made the social and political nature of Fern’s story invisible. From my description of Nomadland’s political undertones, it should be clear I do not agree with this reading. And while it is true the filmmakers made a compromise for the sake of getting their work done (promising Amazon ahead of time that they would not bring an “agenda” to the film in order to shoot on location at a warehouse), this doesn’t settle the question of its truthfulness.
Artists like Zhao may claim to have no political agenda at all, or be fully committed political partisans, but in the end all that should matter for us as critics is the extent to which their work captures reality. This goes beyond the superficial question of whether the movie is critical enough of Amazon. Like some Soviet critics who attacked Platonov’s writing as not positive enough, there is a tendency among left-wing reviewers—Jones is only one example—to dismiss Zhao’s portrayal of Fern and the nomads because it is not as negative as they’re convinced it needs to be. This, however, misses the key point of the film.
Does Zhao show the truth of Amazon? Definitely not. But I think we can at least say that it shows the truth of Amazon for Fern. She says it’s good money several times (an echo of something said by workers in Bruder’s book). That doesn’t mean she has any money for repairs. The job also clearly exhausts her, once to the point where she falls asleep in a sporting-goods store after her shift. But the more fundamental insight is that the ideology of work is the only thing Fern still believes in with any clarity, as opposed to all of the other dreams—love, comfort, belonging, stability—that proved to be so crushingly transient.
One must assume that for many actually existing workers something similar is true. It is at least partially this ideology of work (and not only the corporate misinformation and negative publicity) that led California’s Prop 22 to pass and the recent Amazon union drive in Alabama to fail. If we want to understand our present, in other words, and how to change it for the better, we have to understand that even consistent worker dissatisfaction and precarity does not necessarily translate to a belief in unions or political organizing. The work may be hard, the breaks impossible, but many Americans still do not even consider collective action an option—it is not, for most people, part of the landscape. Nomadland conveys this landscape while not sparing us the day-to-day hardships. Zhao’s approach is both moving and useful because it portrays a life like Fern’s in its emotional depth: not only as a wage-slave for Amazon, or as a nearly destitute woman whose society owes her more, but as a woman struggling to understand her romantic commitments and who still seeks out and finds beauty and a connection to nature. To write this off as utopian because there are moments of joy or sublime confrontation with the environment, or as dystopian because we have read the journalistic reports, is to ignore the deeply imagined human reality portrayed here. What chance is there for social change, and what good can we be at articulating a better future, if we must dismiss the complexity of such a character as an idealized fantasy?
My dad called them trailer people, and was certain they would help us out. (They did.) This is the promise of the new American nomad life, and undoubtedly one that speaks to the real and fictional characters of Nomadland. Piecing together a freedom and independence quite different from suburban life, the thin walls of a van and trailer seem to demand, and inspire, a solidarity that lawns and drywall preclude. Despite the patronizing condescension of Fern’s sister, Dolly (Melissa Smith), when she calls Fern and the nomads part of a great “American tradition,” the rising wave of people turning to the road suggests that this is not purely a result of our dwindling prosperity, not only a destination for the victims of capital’s whims. It is also something chosen despite its difficulties, an ongoing adaption to life in this country, an escape hatch from the numbing effects of isolation and consumerism.
I wrote earlier that the movie refuses to bare Fern’s soul to us. What does she want? To forget her past, to live in her solitude, perhaps to give a comfortable late-life romance a chance? Is it merely “self-actualization” (as Jones sarcastically paraphrases it)? The movie stops short of tying up the loose ends for us, or of supplying the comforting ending we might want—although it suggests the possibility. What is clear is that all these questions hang in the balance for Fern, and invite us to feel the weight of what she has to struggle with. For the attentive viewer and critic, there is plenty to indicate how deeply political Nomadland is without it being crude or didactic. Looking closely enough at the emotional and physical lives of a working-class character like Fern and her companions is a crucial artistic contribution. It does not tell the whole story of what is wrong with our social moment, but it does have something to teach us about how the rest of that story might be told.