Nomadland rejects the hipster dream of van-life

Originally published on Sumner Newscow on February 26, 2021

Happy Friday. As a native Kansan (as my lovely readers can attest), there is a calming sensation that washes over me when I’m on the road. This doesn’t apply when I take a Lyft from the airport to my house in Washington, DC, of course. The calm will only take root, in a rural country when what I can see is limited only by how far my vision reaches before it’s obstructed by buildings.

With these feelings in mind, it isn’t a surprise that I fell in love with Chloé Zhao’s new movie, streaming exclusively on Hulu, Nomadland. Starring Oscar-winning actress Francis McDormand, Nomadland tells the story of a woman who started living in her van once the company propping up her hometown shut down and dissolved the city in under a year.

If you’ve been on TikTok or met a disillusioned millennial in the last few years, you’re no doubt familiar with the rise of “van-life.” Van-life is the latest trend of young adults partaking in a trendy form of houselessness by converting a van or short bus into a posh living space. The ingenuity and amenities of these vans’  are measured by their owners. Many are nicer than New York apartments. Nomadland, however, ignores these hobbyists to focus instead, on the vast majority of houseless people.

The film explores the nomadic lifestyle through a sympathetic, and loving lens, educating viewers on anything from the tricks of van life to the various odd jobs these people travel the country to do. More often than not, nomads are drifters, the elderly, or victims of displacement rather than the polished Instagram models we’re used to seeing. Zhao takes special care to give these marginalized people the spotlight and the microphone as often as she can and we hear from people we aren’t used to seeing in a movie of this caliber.

Let’s highlight some of the real people who played fictionalized versions of themselves in order to tell their stories:

  • Linda May: the Oscars won’t do it because they’re cowards, but Linda May should win the award for supporting actress. Not only is she captivating in her scenes and look more natural on screen than most actors, she gives one of the most meaningful speeches I’ve seen in film of what it’s like to contemplate suicide (a subject Hollywood would rather use as a plot device than a genuine conversation)
  • Charlene Swankee: an elderly woman who considers her life fulfilled thanks to her nomadic ways and the experiences they’ve awarded her. She’s seen beautiful natural phenomena like moose families in the wild and a swallow breeding ground on a serene river, and speaks lovingly about it, creating the film’s most poetic moment
  • Bob Wells: Bob is the leader of a travelers’ commune and toes the line of forming a cult. I get worried when I see old, rural white men talk about the “tyranny of the dollar” because it usually leads to conspiracy and religious theories, but Bob is actually someone who recognizes the shortcomings of American capitalism and dedicates his life to helping those in need (and is only slightly religious)
  • Bryce Bedsworth: although he’s only in a single scene, Bryce makes a big impact on the tone of the movie with his heartfelt monologue. Around a campfire at the commune, Bryce explains that he lives on the road because he can’t live around loud noises or big crowds anymore due to the PTSD the Vietnam War gave him. PTSD is a condition that the US treats like an unfortunate circumstance of life rather than a debilitating (and often fatal) disease it inflicts on 4% on the population and a third of all veterans, so seeing it spoken about sincerely was extremely moving
  • The piano playing drifter: I couldn’t find this actor’s name anywhere on the Internet, but he performs a mini-concert for one of the lighter moments, and best transition scenes, of the film. It’s called Boogie Woogie Blues by Paul Winer and it’s a beautiful, if not simple, piano ditty about honoring those who have passed.

As you might have guessed, Nomadland’s choice to include real houseless people is part of a larger trend of authenticity. Each scene peers deeper into the intricacies of life on the road and makes ever-clearer to the viewers that this life is accessible, but shouldn’t be taken lightly.

The movie takes care to point out how important it is to know how to service one’s vehicle and have the ability to signal for help if needed. It provides some helpful tips about using the bathroom in one’s car and modifying other parts of the vehicle to make it more livable. But more than any tips and tricks the film offers, it highlights the stigma these people go through every day.

There are multiple scenes throughout the film that acknowledge how hard it is to find a place to park overnight (despite America being made up of enormous plots of parking lots that don’t belong to them anyway) and the expense that accompanies a lot of RV parks, which provide lifesaving services for these folks. When McDormand’s character, Fern, isn’t searching for a place to rest for the night, she’s usually being patronized and harassed by people who don’t understand her.

Gas station owners advise her to hunker down in a church. People from her past talk down to her to offer a place to stay. The only person to invite her earnestly into their home for a reason other than misunderstanding her lifestyle is Fern’s sister who asks her to move in late in the film. She goes out of her way to validate Fern’s choices as a “great American tradition,” but asks her to give it up anyway because she missed out on having her sister in life. This still conflicts with the Fern’s worldview, but is at least understandable (and points out the very-real fallacy that homeownership is somehow a good thing if you aren’t part of the misnamed greatest generation).

Nomadland is a great movie that you should watch as soon as you can, and that fact is never clearer than the quiet moments on screen. The best parts of the film, and nomadic life in general, are the sights and natural phenomenon one might never experience being confined to one locale. Fern travels to the Redwoods of California, to the deserts of the American southwest, to rundown small towns in all their Midwestern glory. While us Kansans know the understated beauty of some of these places, people who don’t go explore the “great out there,” as Fern’s sister calls it, will never know the same feeling.

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