Recently I watched the new film Nomadland, which is based on Jessica Bruder’s book of the same name. I read the book in 2018, not long after it was released, so I was excited to watch the film.
Nomadland, the Book
The book is the result of several years of on-the-ground research by author, who bought and lived in her own camper to really get the experience of being an American “nomad”.
Bruder imbedded herself with people who have taken on a lifestyle of permanent travel. They live in a variety of vehicles, from fancy high-end RV’s to vans, panel trucks, and occasionally tents. Many people do it because they want to and can find a way to support themselves, but Bruder’s research focuses more on people who found their way into as a means of survival. Either they realized that the combination of high rent and low pay they were facing was unsustainable or economic setbacks, particularly recent recessions and the housing bubble, forced them to do something drastic.
When I first read Nomadland in 2018, I was fascinated by story because, quite honestly, it’s something I never thought of doing in the United States. During my years in the Middle East, I saw people living different types of nomadic lifestyles all the time. Although many people who are traditionally nomadic no longer travel, it’s always just under the surface in the Middle East. People are familiar with it, and certainly I have eaten many meals and even slept in traditional tents myself. It’s common for people to stop almost anywhere and set up a picnic, even right on the side of the road.
I guess I tend to think there are rules about these things in the United States, but the reality seems to be is that, like many things, they vary.
There are plenty of people who could live a traditional lifestyle and simply choose this one. There are interesting stories there, but definitely the most interesting is the story of people, especially people 50 and up, who find they have limited options either through unexpected financial problems or because, as Bruder points out, in most of the U.S. it is not feasible to rent a living space at market value on a minimum wage job and have enough left over to provide basic necessities.
In addition, older adults face job discrimination or sometimes other limitations that prevent them from working.
An attorney recently told me that adults over 40, by law, get three times as long to back out of a termination agreement than those under 40 because of age discrimination in the workplace (I’m sure it varies by state). Companies terminate older workers at much higher rates, and they try to strong arm them into accepting disadvantageous settlements while they are still reeling from the shock.
So this kind of thing can happen to anyone, and yes, the stakes do change as you get older. Certainly there are things you can do to try to mitigate this effect (I think most especially not taking on huge mortgage debt), but if we have learned nothing else in the past year, we should have learned that stability is an illusion. And we may all come to the day when we have to start over and figure things out. Options are good.
Nomadland, the Film
The film Nomadland is quite a bit different from the book because the book is straight nonfiction. Bruder meets many people in different circumstances and writes about what she learns. Also, Bruder was in her 30’s when she did this research, and Fern, Frances McDormand’s character in the film, is in her 60’s. The film makes the central character someone who fits the demographic of the people whose stories dominate this book.
Naturally, the film emphasizes and reconfigures different stories to put them together in a narrative thread that connects the film. It’s a technique I like, but it also makes the book and the film more companion pieces than retellings. Since I had read the book first, I expected this because I knew there wasn’t such a strong narrative in the book, but you might find it jarring if you watch the film first and expect the book to center on Fern’s story.
A couple of really cool things about this film:
1. Many of the characters play themselves. I suspected as much because they seemed so real, and I was right.
2. Frances McDormand goes full frontal. I kid you not. I was impressed enough when she gave us an up close view of experiencing diarrhea in camper van with a bucket, and then this. She is amazing.
Nomadland is not the first film to take a nonfiction book and convert it into a narrative. He’s Not That Into You and Queen Bees and Wannabees (made into the film Mean Girls) are two books that were similarly interpreted on film. Director Chloé Zhao is known for mixing non-actors with actors, and in Nomadland she shoots on location (even the crew and actors lived in vans during filming!) and used random people at the sites, such as tourists, as extras.
I really loved the mixture of reality and fiction in this film, and I’m looking to see more like it.
Note: Scroll to the bottom for a very short clip from The New York Times’ “Anatomy of a Scene” about the making of Nomadland.
How are we supposed to feel about Nomadland?
I don’t know if I’m supposed to feel bad about these people or not, but I don’t. I love the idea that they have figured out a way to take control of their circumstances and find their best possible life.
I am actually a big fan of the tiny house movement and talk about it all the time. One day I realized that people have ben doing this for a long time when I remembered that my own grandmother lived in a little house on a piece of family property. She lived on the same piece of land as my aunt and uncle but in her own home.
My brother still owns the little house, and he tells me he could probably easily keep 5 of them rented, judging by the number of inquiries he gets.
I would love to have the same arrangement with my daughter someday, and I would certainly love to see her kids grow up the way I did.
For some people, living small and staying in one place is the answer, and it’s a good one. For others, having few responsibilities at home frees them up for other things, such as travel.
While there are many who can and do make the choice to live tiny and travel because they want to, of course there are many who do it for survival. But there is an element of adventure and camaraderie that is appealing, and in the end, these people do more than survive.
They live. They live in a way that doesn’t consign them to fringes because of their possibly poverty, or age, or anything else. They choose. They are the subjects of their lives.
The thing that especially appeals to me about the film in particular is that it shows older people getting out and living their lives. Since the homes are minuscule, a lot of the action either takes place outside or in taverns and bars. So what I saw was a lot of older people out living their lives and having fun on their own terms rather than trying to survive by living out a blueprint that they didn’t set up and is not working for them.
The scene where Fern’s sister tells Fern that she’s “brave” really struck home with me because someone recently said the same thing to me. To me, it’s not about being brave. It’s about doing what makes sense. In the scene, the sister has asked Fern to leave the road and live with her. I’m pretty sure living in your sister and brother in law’s home would also take bravery, just a different kind. I would rather be Fern for sure, even with all of her hardships, but many people would consider that crazy.I get it.
I’ve gone off the blueprint a few times myself in my life, and I have never regretted any of the choices I’ve made.
The great thing about this film, whether you love or hate this idea, is that it shows you an option.
And that’s the American way.