Thinking about the future keeps getting scarier. Even discounting the rise of fascism, imminent climate disaster and pervasive racial injustice, Americans are suffering to retain their humanity in the face of immense and long enduring economic precarity. While there remains a popular narrative of millennials and gen-z youth bearing the brunt of these distressing circumstances, boomers did not evade crisis as a monolith. Particularly following the 2008 housing crash and Great Recession, during which countless adults lost nest eggs, retirement savings and their own homes, the prospect of retirement has since become a frank impossibility for a large swath of the country.
Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a mosaic of these Americans, many of whom have abandoned (or been forced out of) homeownership and have thus taken to the road in vans or RVs, traveling wherever honest work leads them. Based on the 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by journalist Jessica Bruder, Zhao features many of Bruder’s real-life sources recounting personal stories of hardship while also preaching the benefits of their nomadic way of life. Despite the wealth of non-actors relaying intimate and striking tales of the death of the American dream and Zhao’s spectacular success of recounting real-life stories in narrative form with her previous films Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider, the director stays closely tethered to Fern (Frances McDormand), who appears to be a composite character rendered from subjects in Bruder’s book.
Zhao’s contemplative look at this uncertain way of life is often despondent yet arresting—anecdotes surrounding suicide, sickness and astounding loss resonate profoundly, yet the marvelous backdrop of canyons, open deserts and purple-hued skies offer some form of consolation. These moments are most potent when conveyed by non-actors such as Linda May, who Bruder follows extensively in her book and Harper’s essay “The End of Retirement.” May also holds a special place in Zhao’s film, becoming one of the fictitious Fern’s closest friends and eventual shepherd into mobile living. While Zhao is clearly talented at involving non-actors in order to bolster the real human experiences explored in her work, the spell appears to be somewhat broken in Nomadland due to the predominant focus on McDormand’s character, making the non-actors ancillary as opposed to the focus of the story. Particularly during a scene where non-actor Swankie discloses her grim cancer prognosis to Fern, the real weight of Swankie’s ordeal seems incompatible even with McDormand’s clearly talented acting. For a film that aims to portray the plight of growing old in a country that offers little respite for aging populations aside from working themselves to death, Nomadland is less interested in confronting this issue as it is painting a beautiful picture of an unlikely way of life.
Zhao’s exploration of aging RV dwellers and the break-back seasonal work that keeps them afloat is an altogether different approach than Bruter’s. The same year that the journalist wrote her book, she produced a Field of Vision documentary (directed by Brett Story) called Camperforce, utilizing much of the footage and interviews she had gathered while reporting. What is particularly unsettling about the documentary is the hand that Amazon plays in perpetuating the geriatric workforce through their “Camperforce” program, through which seniors drive all over the country and post-up at Amazon warehouses that are particularly desperate for extra seasonal workers from October through December. Zhao also specifically depicts Fern’s Amazon jobs in Nomadland, but there is little discussion of the perils of this physically strenuous labor on a population already rife with health and mobility issues. Perhaps this is due to Zhao’s decision to shoot inside of a real Amazon warehouse and the bureaucratic impositions this must have entailed, but compared to the stark comparison in Camperforce of Jeff Bezos’ unparalleled global wealth to the fact that nearly one-third of American households headed by people 55 years and older have no pension or savings to their names, Zhao’s Nomadland can’t help but come off as somewhat toothless.
What is clear about these migrant workers is that they find unbridled pride in what they do. They rarely complain, instead choosing to be optimistic in the face of uncertainty. This doesn’t mean that these folks will be any less abused by the despicable mechanics of late-stage capitalism—only that in their eyes, this exploitation is a means to an end. Perhaps this is what Zhao ultimately communicates through the lack of outright indictment of broken systems on behalf of these travelers. However, if the director opted for the convenience of a fictional central character in order to appropriately scrutinize this phenomenon, why allow bloated corporations off scott-free?
Director: Chloé Zhao
Writers: Chloé Zhao, based off the book by Jessica Bruder
Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Bob Wells, Charlene Swankie
Release Date: December 4, 2020 (Searchlight Pictures)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.