The Travelers,” a documentary from directors Liz Garbus and Alison Ellwood airing as part of MTV’s “True Life” series, is an especially compelling piece of work. The subject itself is part of what makes it strong; the film begins as a straightforward depiction of the lives of young modern-day hobos, journeying from city to city often on open freight trains. But what sets this docu apart is that the primary traveler spokesman, Ron Jones, starts to recognize that this may not be the way he wants to spend his young adult-hood.
“The Travelers” starts off as an exploration of a nonconformist lifestyle but, without a hint of contrivance, be-comes a coming-of-age story in the truest sense of the phrase.
Garbus (“The Farm: Angola USA”) and Ellwood (“Frontline”) met Jones over two years ago on the streets of Manhattan. Young, articulate and with a gentle demeanor, Jones talks about seeing friends settle down into jobs and marriage and how that seems like an empty life to him. With his backpack, his sleeping bag and his treasured journal of thoughts and photos, Jones claims that his is the life of true freedom. He recognizes it’s not an easy life — earlier that day, in fact, Jones’ traveler friend had died of a heart attack at the ripe old age of 22 — but still he’s got the bug, he needs to keep moving.
Jones and a large group of friends hop on freight trains or hitch-hike from one familiar city to another, seeking out their old haunts and drinking seemingly from morning ’til night. At times, the life seems romantic, absent responsibility of any kind, composed of watching green pastures pass by from an open train car and reveling with close friends. But the film also captures the fact that these kids don’t belong in an offbeat Norman Rockwell painting, especially when we see one of them being treated with coffee grounds and nail glue for a gash in the head, or another vomiting semi-consciously after another long evening of drinking and downing various prescrip-tion pills, or another learning to beg for money to appease her hunger.
We get bits and pieces of life stories as well and recognize that while some of these youths are escaping hor-rific homes, some are genuinely not. Jones, for example, tells us how close he felt to his father before he passed away, and, in an amusing moment, we see him call his mother in Kentucky on a cell phone while rattling along on a freight train. And there are events that occur as well, as Jones gets involved with a fellow traveler named Karen but decides that it’s a bad idea to become too attached.
Garbus and Ellwood are true documentarians, taking a non-judgmental view of this life, while also not shying away from staring at its dark side. And it’s because the film portrays its subjects honestly that the turning points take on poignance. By the end, everything that Jones said at the beginning is placed in stark relief: Is it really freedom to go to the same places over and over with the same people doing the same things?
The use of musical scoring here is far more sophisticated than usual for MTV, capturing and elevating moods instead of just providing background pop wallpaper or ironic counterpoint. This is a documentary that has a heart: it’s infused with an effortless emotion, and it has something deeply human to say.