What the Current Cinema is Getting Right (and Wrong) about Aging and Ageism
Getting it Right: Nomadland
The choices that older adults are making about where they want to live fascinate us. We describe the stories of real people in our book Choose Your Place: Rethinking Home as You Age. As we were writing it, the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder (2018) piqued my interest. This book made clear how people face even more complex choices when survival is on the line.
Naturally, I was excited to see the movie based on the book titled Nomadland. It does not disappoint. Adapting this non-fiction work into a movie with some real characters and some fictionalized ones was no easy task. The movie and the book examine what it’s like to age after a lifetime of work and then suddenly lose everything you own. The main character, Fern, is in her early 60’s. Her husband has died and in the same period of time, her town has literally gone out of business. She is forced to sell anything that she can and move. She decides to convert a van and live in it. She becomes a migrant worker of the modern era. She works seasonally at an Amazon warehouse, she works at truck stops and sugar beet harvests. As she migrates around the American West, she joins a group of van and RV “Nomads” and these fellow elderly travelers become family and friends. Some of the real nomads featured in Bruder’s book play themselves in the movie to great effect.
Francis McDormand gives a powerhouse performance as Fern. The multiple losses, fears, anger and unyielding grief play across her face. The movie is beautifully filmed and portrays van life authentically. Aging in poverty is not prettified, but truthfully presented. Of course, there are lingering questions. Can older adults live indefinitely in an RV or van? What happens when they are injured or sick? The movie touches on the realities of chronic illness, such as cancer, in old age. The answer from one character is that she will just go off to die like an animal. The film does not dwell on this issue. Learning to simply survive is much more critical. Independence is the rallying cry. But, as we know, that can be a painful and isolating choice when in decline. Nomadland makes a strong case for the value of that choice, no matter how old you are.
Getting it Wrong: I Care a Lot
When I first saw the trailer to I Care a Lot, I was intrigued. Netflix describes this film as a dark/comedy thriller. It had a “ripped from the headlines” appeal. It seemed to be referencing the widely read New Yorker piece, How the Elderly Lose Their Rights by Rachel Aviv. It describes criminals who pose as private family guardians. They gain conservatorship over people who are deemed legally unable to manage without help. This legal authority allows them access to all of the ward’s money and assets. There are good guardians who truly do care about their vulnerable clients. But, corruption and theft is rampant.
Maybe this fictionalized version will give these shameless crooks their comeuppance with a bit of humor? Don’t count on it. In the beginning, there is a good description of what the thieves do and how they do it. The evil guardian, Marla, is deftly played by Rosamund Pike, who won a Golden Globe award for Best Actress for this role. Marla is the epitome of glamour and confidence as she easily hoodwinks innocent older adults and empties their bank accounts in a flash. The film glorifies the rewards of taking advantage of old people. It is painted as a simple path to beautiful clothes, expensive cars and real estate. Instead, it is the exploitation and victimization of vulnerable people, no matter their age.
One heartbreaking scene stands out. The son of one of Marla’s wards tries to take her to court and return his mother to freedom. He is desperate and angry that he has no power to even visit his mother. Marla makes an impassioned speech about how much she cares about her charges and the case is dismissed.
But, then the narrative takes a turn. Marla has targeted a nice old lady, Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest in a masterly performance). Then, it becomes clear that Jennifer has dangerous mob connections. Peter Dinklage, as Jennifer’s mobster son, is one of the most enjoyable and effective characters here. As the gangster son begins to go after Marla, the story shifts. The movie tries to persuade us that Marla is the hero. After all, she is a woman in a man’s world, she has to fight harder for everything that she has “earned” compared to Jennifer’s Russian mafia son. Now, the story is about women versus men, power and control and who can be more despicable. Here comes the revenge angle. Wait, we’re supposed to root for Marla? No thanks, not in a million years.
Yes, comedies are supposed to be absurd. But this story line goes too far. Some elements are disturbing. Marla keeps photos of all of her exploited, elderly victims on display on her office wall like so many hunting trophies. I’m not exactly a fan of the senior care industry. The depiction here is pretty sleazy. It reduces them to a corrupt system of doctors and administrators on the take. Their one aim is to keep older people in their charge quiet and doped up. (So much for all the legislation in the US making this practice extremely hard to do in care settings.) Even the well meaning son in the earlier court room scene goes off the deep end. He becomes as violent and despicable as the criminals.
This movie left me feeling disappointed and disturbed. The elderly are just so many marks for financial exploitation. There is a brief segment of Jennifer living an ordinary life. She does try to get out of the trap Marla has set for her. I was hoping that Jennifer and her son would pair together and bring Marla down. It would have been a lot more fun that the gratuitous violence and humiliation that follows. Unfortunately, the old people in this movie are mostly depicted as meek, weak or deranged. Is this ageist? It gave me that feeling.
Some may think this movie is “Deliciously Nasty!,” as one review raved. That’s what disturbs me.