In ‘Nomadland,’ Vanlife Is a Necessity—Not a Choice
Chloé Zhao’s new film follows a baby boomer who moves into her van after the Great Recession
When I was living full-time in a van before the pandemic, I visited San Diego, a place where it was common to find people living in their cars. The city’s year-round warm weather facilitated a booming community who lived in vans and RVs as a lifestyle choice. At the same time, a housing shortage and high rent prices forced others to live in their vehicles because they had nowhere else to turn.
These groups regularly shared the same spaces, despite their differences, and lines between them were often blurred. They all lived with wheels beneath them in public lots and along seaside streets, but for many, privilege was a great—and often hidden—divider.
As vanlife has grown in popularity throughout the country, those who live in vehicles out of necessity, particularly older people, can be overlooked and forgotten. Nomadland, a new feature film about hard-up baby boomers forced to take to the open road after the 2008 financial crash, grants them an overdue moment of recognition.
The movie follows Fern (played by Frances McDormand), a widow in her sixties who resides in an old van, which she uses to find seasonal work around the country. Fern once worked for the U.S. Gypsum Corporation in Empire, Nevada, before the company went bust, leaving Empire a ghost town. With little or no savings, she moved into her ride.
While on the road, Fern meets others who are trying to make the best of their lives’ tumultuous third act, trudging over the shards of what’s left 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’s a legend in the real-life van-dwelling community. Fern is but another “workhorse,” as Wells describes people like her, “willing to work itself to death and then be put out to pasture.” To survive, they must stick together. “That’s what this is all about,” Wells says of the gathering, where attendees teach others the basics of road life: how to maintain their vans, find safe places to sleep, and build their own toilets.
Fern is our era’s Forgotten Woman. She is past middle age, living alone and still working, with no hope for retirement in sight. When we meet her, she has a job at an Amazon fulfillment warehouse and lives in an RV park paid for by the company. When her work contract expires in wintertime—along with the stipend she gets from Amazon to rent the space—she has to move. She takes odd jobs around the country, polishing rocks at a mineral shop, swabbing toilets as a camp host, grilling burgers in a café, and harvesting sugar beets.
Like many Americans her age, Fern built her life around a single company that she relied on for everything: income, housing, health insurance, and security. At once, it all disappeared. Anyone who’s ever lost their job knows the utter helplessness you feel when you’re suddenly responsible for the benefits you once outsourced to a company. This film will resonate with anyone who’s been there—and if you’ve lived through the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a good chance you have.
After I was laid off from my job in 2018, my wife and I sold what we could and traded our apartment for a used Ram ProMaster, where we lived for nearly two years in a homemade camper. Our 72-square-foot living space had no temperature control, so we followed the mild weather around the country each season—down in winter, up in summer—occasionally joining caravans of nomads but often living isolated in the wilderness or sneaking in overnights on city streets. We considered ourselves incredibly privileged as we, a pair of childless millennials who could work remotely, chose to live this way.
The film gently hints at the tension between those lucky enough to live on the road for fun and those who do it for survival.
Nomadic living has grown fashionable over the past few years, given the increase of telework and the technology that makes it possible. The ubiquity of social media has helped fuel this rise, documenting the phenomenon using soothing filters to hide its blemishes and flaws. (I, too, am not without sin.) The hashtag #vanlife fills Instagram with thirsty photos of sun-kissed twentysomethings performing yoga handstands atop $100,000 rigs in a magical world where it’s always the golden hour. It’s a fantasy land of eternal youth, full of beautiful people who seem to spend an extraordinary amount of time not wearing pants.
Nomadland is not about those people. In fact, there are hardly any young people in the movie at all. 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 but 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 for survival. When Fern and some friends tour a new luxury RV, they fantasize about what it would be like to live the good life in something so refined, traveling just for pleasure instead of necessity. “It’s like a disco,” one of the women marvels once inside the palatial rig, which has multiple bedrooms and even a washer-dryer. “Oh my God!”
Those who have spent time living on the road will recognize moments when Nomadland gets it just right: sometimes you get diarrhea in your van when, of course, you’re out of toilet paper. Flat tires happen as storm clouds begin to gather overhead. Strange men pound on your door at night while you’re sleeping and tell you to leave. Friends and family just don’t understand why you do it.
In an early scene, Fern takes a moment to rest in a sporting-goods store—when you live outside, any time spent indoors feels like an indulgence—and an old friend shopping with her daughter sees her.
“Are you still doing the van thing?” the friend asks Fern. “We’re worried about you.”
When Fern says she’s doing fine, the daughter turns to her and says, “My mom says that you’re homeless. Is that true?”
“I’m not homeless,” Fern replies. “I’m just houseless.”
Nomadland is not a documentary, but it’s easy to forget that while watching it. McDormand is one of only a few professional actors who appear in it. The rest of the cast is made up of real nomads playing versions of themselves, and they do so surprisingly well. Wells is featured prominently, as is Linda May, who viewers may recognize from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, upon which the film is based. Not unlike Fern, the real-life Linda May, single and in her sixties, lived full-time in a small camper she named “The Squeeze Inn” and worked her way around the country as a camp host. The choice to feature normal people and shoot on location in places like South Dakota’s Badlands and the Arizona desert allowed the film to showcase a real subculture and highlight the economic forces that created it.
Director Chloé Zhao took a low-key, unorthodox approach to making Nomadland. To blend in, 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 using their own words. In one scene, Fern joins a group of people sitting around a campfire and listens as they talk about how they ended up living as nomads, a powerful, unscripted section of the movie.
“Those were 100 percent real,” Wells told me. “I know those people. I know their stories. I’ve heard them before. What you saw around the campfire was those people and their lives.”
In its best moments, the film captures the bizarre rhythms of road life, as Fern sways between periods of joyful community and moments of crushing loneliness that seem to have no end. Friends are gone as quickly as they appear, leaving only dust behind as they drive away toward warmer weather or a new job. Many portions of Nomadland were shot during sunset hours, a choice that casts a beautiful but haunting hue over its scenes. The quiet style hypnotizes in the same way you start to get a dizzy feeling when you spend most of your time on a road headed somewhere else. Where to, exactly? Nowhere in particular. The next place. There’s always a next place.
Nomadland is available on Hulu and in theaters February 19.