How many Americans live in converted vehicles? More precisely, how many belong to the distinctive “van-dwelling” demographic portrayed in Nomadland, which took home six Oscars earlier this year, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay? In the eponymous book that inspired the film, journalist Jessica Bruder explains: “Full-time travelers are a demographer’s nightmare. Statistically they blend in with the rest of the population, since the law requires them to maintain fixed—in other words, fake—addresses.” A fair point, but these “nomads” are hardly a cross-section of the population. The vast majority are white, over the age of 60, and unable to retire because they lack sufficient savings, Social Security, or family support to stop working.

Not that they want to retire. “I like work!” says Fern, the film’s main character, played by Frances McDormand. She is speaking to an employment counselor who has just informed her, with bland bureaucratic condescension, that there are no jobs available in the town where Fern has lived and worked for many years. Fern is a fictional character, but her experience is based on that of the nomads in Bruder’s book, several of whom play themselves in this poignant semi-documentary film directed by Hollywood newcomer Chloé Zhao.

Many of these people lost

Subscribe for access This article is reserved for subscribers.