It isn’t surprising that, at the 78th Golden Globe Awards, Chloé Zhao’s film Nomadland won the award for Best Drama Motion Picture, while Zhao herself took home the honor of Best Director of a Motion Picture. The movie has been faring very well in critics’ circles since its February 19 release and has been equally praised by the public for its casting choice of real-life nomads, compassion toward subjects and themes, and loose, understated structure.
Nomadland follows the life of Fern, a middle-aged woman who loses her job at a U.S. Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada after the plant shuts down; this loss is compounded by the death of Fern’s husband. Emboldened by her grief, Fern decides to move into a van and travel the country on four wheels, while also taking on a seasonal job at Amazon. Throughout her journey, Fern meets some truly special people. Among them is Linda May, a nomadic grandma (and one of the real-life van travelers in the cast) who encourages Fern to attend the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous organized by Bob Wells—a minor celebrity in the nomadic community. Fern takes up the offer and ends up visiting this convention, held every January and said to be the largest gathering of van-travelers in the world. At the Rendezvous, Fern also meets Swankie—seasoned van-dweller and nature lover with an imposing cancer diagnosis—and David, a nomad Fern has a somewhat hard time getting close to.
The story of Fern’s journey by van through the American West is so purposefully subtle and normal that, after the last scene of mountain vistas is shown and the credits start rolling, one might think they’ve missed the point.
But to Chloé Zhao and Jessica Bruder—author of the very book that inspired Zhao’s movie—that is the point. The routines of older Americans living in vans, congregating with others like them, and working through past traumas are all too real in their simplicity and humility. Yet, most moments in Nomadland (Fern fumbling for the toilet paper after having gone to the bathroom, right next to her bed and her kitchen; a solo New Year’s celebration marked with a sparkler and novelty eyeglasses; the monotonous job of an Amazon seasonal worker, making ends meet by fixing labels to packages) stand in sharp contrast to what typically comes to mind when the words “van” and “life” are spoken together in a sentence.
Thanks to the #vanlife movement that has cropped up on social media in the last decade—fueled by mostly young, white, well-off adventurers—the true realities of a vagabond’s existence (like those shown in Zhao’s film) are often ignored in favor of something straight out of a Pinterest board. This, in turn, creates a sort of public cognitive dissonance when movies like Nomadland hit the screens. Used to #vanlife narratives that are much more picturesque and thrilling, most people have a hard time accepting that stories like Fern’s are far more frequent.
The “living-your-best-life-while-vanbound” movement practically exploded last year at the peak of the pandemic, when stay-at-home orders left everyone a little fidgety and dreaming of any kind of travel. People grew increasingly enchanted with the age-old idea of selling all nonessential belongings and following the road west. Besides, it was a safe and COVID-compliant option: no crowds, no unnecessary public interactions, no noise. On TikTok, videos showing people redecorating old vans, schoolbuses, RVs, and cars started getting millions of views. On Instagram—where #vanlife posts have grown by over 312% in the past three years—a simple scroll shows more and more pictures of similarly styled vans, toes peeking out of blankets, and the incredible vastness of mountain ranges, oceans, and deserts.
These images might scream “freedom” and “happiness” for those fantasizing about a similar life, but they also hold the implicit and complicated messages of privilege, choice, and financial security—three things Nomadland’s characters and the majority of actual van-dwellers do not possess.
In fact, the #vanlife movement witnessed on social media is rapidly turning into an enterprise of the well-off. People are calling their van-focused social media accounts clever names like Where’s My Office Now and A Girl and Her Van, opening Volkswagen-van repair shops and remodeling businesses, initiating partnership deals with camper product companies like GoWesty, and making money on every view or like their carefully curated content receives. These are the lives of a select few—surely not of people like Swankie, Bob Wells, and Linda May, who don’t have booming social media businesses, can hardly spend upwards of $20,000 on one-time van repairs, and often arrive at their lifestyles out of necessity.
Because of this, many van-lifers are feeling increasingly underrepresented by a movement that is supposed to validate and empower them. Some say that luxury vans with expensive equipment and products are not even close to how cramped and simplistic van interiors really are. Others are disillusioned by the beautiful locations captured by nomadic influencers—sure, there’s a lot to see on the road, but most people (like Fern on multiple occasions) end up spending the night in an empty parking lot or littered campground instead. And the freedom that is so glorified in the #vanlife movement is much more restricted in actuality: things like legal parking locations, mechanical problems, and where to take a shower all need to be accounted for on a daily basis.
This is why movies like Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, however celebrated, are also pretty uncomfortable to watch. They set the record straight on how lives on the road actually play out for people who are not young, not rich, and don’t consider their travels a vacation. They put a glaring spotlight on the financial difficulties of Americans past and present.
The aestheticization of nomadic lifestyles on social media might seem harmless at first glance (and downright seductive even), but it clearly comes at a cost. The lives of influencers who can afford the better parts of van life become normalized, just as the gritty, complex existences of itinerants like those in Nomadland start to feel undesirable somehow.
These existences and their accompanying challenges on and off the road are the real deal, though—more real than anything a staged photo on social media can ever show. Until the day-to-day lives of people like Fern start playing an equal (if not more important) role in public perceptions of nomads, that’s all the #vanlife trend will ever be: a façade, performatively displayed and utterly false.