The Anti-consumption Weirdos of Nomadland

I surprised myself by enjoying this sad movie about old people working seasonal jobs.

A still from "Nomadland" of Frances McDormand's character, Fern
Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland dares you to watch it. Even pressing the Play button on Hulu is a test of strength; do you have the stones to watch this plotless, dreary semi-documentary about elderly people forced to live in vans—and, yes, perform unspeakable bodily functions within them—and search for seasonal work? Or are you going to be a little baby and watch The Bourne Identity for the kabillionth time?

The much-reviled four-quadrant theory of moviemaking holds that a blockbuster appeals to all four sectors of the audience: young men, young women, somewhat older men, and somewhat older women. Nomadland is a movie that appeals to the four quadrants of the show-business apocalypse: menopausal women, people with life-threatening illnesses, people interested in poverty, and anyone with time on her hands who can’t find the remote.

It’s a popcorn picture for the damned—and so it spoke to me. I live my life on the fading dot where these four demographics converge, and I found the movie powerful, informational, boring, generous, and hopeful. I hate message movies, and speechy movies, and movies in which complex and seemingly intractable problems are solved through movie magic. I never want to see people getting out their guitars and inspiring sing-alongs, and like the Miller in The Canterbury Tales, I am a bit squeamish about farts. I can’t believe I’m watching this, I thought, but when the movie ended, I let my money ride and watched it again.

The simple premise of the movie is that Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman deeply grieving the death of her husband, has decided to leave her home and join up with the ragged fraternity of workers—mostly old people—who live in their vans or cars, and who follow seasonal work the way migrant farmworkers follow a harvest. The make-or-break moment for the viewer is right at the top; if you’re the kind of brute who doesn’t enjoy watching a woman in late middle age poke around her storage unit, you should take your leave. Personally, I could have watched an entire movie on that subject alone. You spend your whole life accumulating things, and then they end up in a storage unit, slowly losing their charge of sentiment and memory and transforming into a bunch of junk. Fern is there to pick out what she will bring with her on the journey. In the end, she chooses the least practical thing of all: a box of china, white with a pattern of red leaves on the rim. That’s not the last of that china I’ll be seeing, I thought to myself, and I was spot-on. The conventional movie moments in the film were kind of a drag. But what I admired very much about the movie was that we didn’t have to sit through a first act of how she made the decision to live on the road, and how she learned the practicalities of managing that kind of life. She’s already in the life, and it’s our job to keep up. In the next scene, she’s crouching down on a wide, cold piece of ground in the endless expanse of the great American flyover, the only sound the trickle of water from some nearby stream. The camera pulls back and we see that it’s not a stream we’re hearing; she’s peeing— displaying all the vulnerability and indignity of a woman peeing outdoors. Afterward, she all but runs back to the van, something a man probably wouldn’t understand, but every woman can. Everything is more dangerous when you’re female.

Believe it or not, Nomadland has been criticized for romanticizing Fern’s life and that of the other nomads. It’s adapted from a deeply reported book by the journalist Jessica Bruder, which expanded on her scorching 2014 Harper’s cover story, “The End of Retirement,” documenting the subculture of older, broke Americans who live in their vehicles. It also introduced readers to the Amazon program that capitalizes on their misfortune and is named, in the fun, up-with-people style of corporate branding, CamperForce. They have come to the end of the line financially, any promises made or implied have been broken, and most of them have some other kind of precipitating issue that has put them on the road. These jobs—whether at Amazon or another employer needing a cheap, disposable workforce not seeking benefits or commitments besides an hourly wage—are things that young bodies are built to perform, not old ones. Repetitive-stress injuries, falls, and endless shifts take a deep toll on these workers, and there’s a hot La-Z-Boy in hell for the person who decided to demand 12-hour shifts from people in their 70s. But these are matters that the director, Chloé Zhao, is uninterested in documenting. She stalwartly refuses to see these nomads as tragic figures. They are captains of their fate, driving America’s never-ending highways, working their bodies raw, tuning their radios for scratchy reception of Christmas carols and classical music, and heating up canned soup on hot plates. They live at once alone and communally. Each has a vehicle, a tiny world unto itself, and most have learned how to live within ever-shifting groups of other nomads for safety, companionship, and advice.

The movie’s two missteps are introducing a conventional love story and having Fern’s well-off sister swoop in with the $2,300 she needs when her van breaks down. The scene in which Fern learns from a mechanic that the van won’t drive without that repair was the film’s one exciting moment. All along you’ve understood that these people are poor, and like all poor people (and many nonpoor people) in America, they are always one bad diagnosis, one necessary car repair, one rotting tooth away from catastrophe. I wondered if this was when Fern would fall below the line that separated the nomads from people living in shelters. But the next thing you know, she’s quarreling with her sister on the phone, sitting sullenly on a bus—and being welcomed into her sister’s comfortable world, where a lovely bedroom is waiting for her and which her sister asks her to move into. All Fern wants is the money and a chance to get back on the road, an artistic choice more than a believable one.

Fern is especially fond of one of the nomads, Linda May, who is a central character in Bruder’s book and who plays herself in the movie. Together, Fern and Linda May work in Amazon warehouses as part of the CamperForce program and then as hosts at a campsite in Badlands National Park. In their free time, they work on a jigsaw puzzle, show each other the useful modifications they have made to their campers, and tell each other stories. While Fern makes tea—opening a special little cabinet she has rigged inside the van—she shows Linda May the china she brought from her storage unit and explains that her father had carefully collected the dinnerware, piece by piece, from yard sales and presented her with a full set when she graduated from high school. “Oh, they’re beautiful!” Linda May says and Fern laughs: “Isn’t that great? It’s called Autumn Leaf.” At the campsite, the women are in charge of cleaning and of checking campers in and out of their spots. Side by side, they scrub the walls of a bathroom and ride around on a golf cart, collecting litter and grossing each other out with the things they find. Fern sets up a little beauty parlor next to her van; “Welcome to Badlands spa!” she tells Linda May, and soon they are sitting in folding chairs, their faces covered in beauty masks, cucumber slices on their closed eyes. On cleaning duty, they take a moment to sit together in the golf cart and admire the view. “Where do you go and find scenery like this?” Fern asks in a wondering way, and Linda May nods and says, “Right here.” And then Fern decides to say something daring: “We be the bitches of the Badlands!” and they both start giggling, sitting there all alone in their private world. At this moment, I realized who they are: girls.

A still from "Nomadland" of two women sitting in lawn chairs in field wearing face masks and with cucumbers on their eyes.
Searchlight Pictures

There’s an old tradition in girls’ literature that focuses on the details of creating a home, often within some kind of restraint. Everything from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to Anne Frank’s diary is filled with lengthy descriptions of creating a home from scratch. I haven’t read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in decades, but I remember perfectly Francie’s summertime habit of bringing ice water, peppermints, and a library book out to the fire escape of her tenement apartment, creating her own little world among the treetops. It used to be—and for some, it still is—that when girls played and read about making a home, they assumed they were preparing for the excitement of really having a home. The reality, of course, is nothing like playing house. There is hard work to be done in a house, and most of it still falls to women. But Fern and Linda May are past the point of having to cook or clean for other people: Fern’s husband is dead, and Linda May’s children are grown. They have their small bits of money, their frugal ways, and the freedom to do the things that little girls love to do. They have been freed from the sexual energies that define so much of a younger woman’s life, long past the age when male sexual energy is a force demanding constant negotiation. They are also free, it seems, from their own sexual desires, that potent force that takes women away from one another. Now their homes are like the playhouses of girlhood: places that resemble an actual home, and yet are never complicated by the realities of being a woman and not a girl. They do their own laundry and no one else’s, and they sit together happily folding it and chatting. Some spirit of childhood gets lost as girls become women. In old age, it makes its welcome return.

These women are the giants of menopause: mobile, self-sufficient, in search of no particular thing. “I’m going to be 75 this year,” a nomad named Swankie tells Fern when she explains why she isn’t afraid of the cancer that will soon kill her; “I think I’ve lived a pretty good life.” She’s headed to Alaska, a place she loves, and when the time comes, she will end her life. (Which is exactly what I would do if I had to shit in a bucket in my minivan, but also what I will do when my own cancer someday runs its course.) “I’m not gonna spend any more time indoors in a hospital,” Swankie says. “No, thanks.”

Something rose in me when Swankie calmly announced her plan, some old inclination. The American Way of Death wouldn’t seem like ideal reading for a 12-year-old, but it was sitting around the house when I was that age, and it was interesting as hell. The American Way of Dying From Cancer could be a companion volume, and for Swankie to take hold of her experience and wrest it from the cancer industrial complex—Big Pharma swooping down to darken the final months of someone who will never make it—was stirring. A few scenes later, we see Swankie cheerfully giving away her possessions. “My grandmother made that for me, and gave it to me,” she says convivially to a woman who picks up an object off-screen. “So, enjoy. Take good care of it.” Fern still has the dishes her father gave her, but Swankie is happily divesting herself from what must surely be her oldest possession, something she has kept with her for her whole life, even into her days living in a cramped van. She is near the end of her journey, and she needs almost nothing.

The nomad movement has many unofficial guides, people who make YouTube videos and websites providing endless information about how to live this kind of life—how to cook and shower and keep from getting harassed by people if you’ve parked too long in a certain place. By far the most well known and charismatic of them is Bob Wells, who also appears in the movie. A 65-year-old man with a Santa Claus beard, he lived a life of regrets—divorce, a family tragedy, serious financial problems—before he understood that he could address a lot of them by getting rid of his rent payment and living in a truck. The first night, he cried himself to sleep, but then he began to realize that for the first time in his life, he was free—from all of it. He had fallen prey to the values and expectations of society, and become too absorbed in earning and spending to grasp that he was robbing himself of a meaningful life. With this move to the outdoors, he had liberated himself. His videos are upbeat and radical. He explains, in a confident and encouraging way, what to do when you’re evicted, and how to make the preparations you need to live on the road.

“We not only accept the tyranny of the dollar, the tyranny of the marketplace, we embrace it,” he says in the film to a gathering of the workers. “We gladly throw the yoke of the tyranny of the dollar on and live by it our whole lives.” He rails against a consumer culture that traps people in endless cycles of work, debt, greed, and dissatisfaction.

This kind of language was familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it.

The nomads, he says, had made a decision: “If society was throwing us away and sending us, the workhorse, out to the pasture, we workhorses had to gather together and take care of each other.” He speaks about the American economy in a way that is at once fatalistic and inspiring. “The Titanic is sinking,” he says. “So my goal is to get the lifeboats out and get as many people into the lifeboats as I can.”

I realized who these anti-consumption weirdos are, and why so much of what they have to say contains a powerful music: They are the 1960s generation, not just grown up, but in their old age. Theirs was the generation ahead of me by a decade or so—the cool kids, the ones to watch. We know what became of many of the kids from that generation: They retreated from the barricades, socked away their money, and channeled their raw, urgent politics into the doctrinaire, neoliberal positions that made the Doonesbury crowd some of Hillary Clinton’s biggest supporters. (From Sproul Plaza to Hillary “Goldman Sachs” Clinton? Age is a terrible thing.) Where did the rest of that legendary generation end up? In the deserts and the Great Plains, it turns out, in Amazon fulfillment centers as large as several football fields. They have the resourcefulness of people who have been poor and the vision to understand that they need to stick together. They have ended up serfs in an America darker than they had imagined. They have given up even on Martin Luther King Jr.’s conception of the Poor People’s Campaign: “People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way … and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.” In the new century, there’s no point in going to Washington anymore; there’s nothing left.

There is no way this movie is going to win an Academy Award, I thought as I watched the ceremony. But of course it did win: a picture that made $6 million and that lifted a middle finger to the imperatives of a sustainable movie business. When Frances McDormand walked to a stage built in a train station that has considerable homeless problems, holding Linda May’s hand, wearing a shapeless black dress, and howling like a wolf once she got there, I thought, There it is: the ’60s. Loony, brave, unconventional, and—half of them, anyway—menopausal. They don’t care what “society” thinks about them; they never did. They tried to warn us half a century ago. They saw what would come from endless consumerism, from a decades-long assault on the environment, from endless war, and they’re doing what they have always done: helping out the less fortunate, teaching people how to survive, giving lessons on how to eat cheaply, and haranguing the rest of us any chance they get—and God knows we need it. They’re old, and their bodies are wearing down. But they were always unafraid, always larger than the situation, and they’re dying with their boots on.