Review: 'Nomadland,' an odyssey of America the beautiful and forsaken, starring Frances McDormand

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Best Actress laureate Frances McDormand attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards Governors Ball at the Hollywood & Highland Center, Hollywood, California. - ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS

Here’s a beaut. Writer-director Chloe Zhao’sfall festival hit, “Nomadland” offers a remarkable experience anytime but especially now, when it can be so weirdly difficult to recall life in America a few years ago. The economic straits depicted here, however, are like bulletins to the future. America today, in other words.

Zhao’s third feature-length film already has become the queen of the traditional fall film festival circuit. That relay, from Telluride (Colorado) to Venice to Toronto to New York, has largely migrated online due to the pandemic. The exception is Venice, where “Nomadland” took top honors last week.

Frances McDormand stars in this beautiful, forlorn sigh of a film. It’s a slice of poetic realism written, directed and edited by Zhao, who made “The Rider,” a drama on the edge of documentary and what many of us considered the finest American picture of 2018. The script comes from material and subjects in Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction account “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” McDormand is in nearly every scene as Fern, a widower in her early 60s. She has never done subtler or truer work.

Fern uproots her life and herself after her late husband’s gypsum plant folds, thereby folding up the town of Empire, Nevada for good. “I’m houseless,” she says to her former students (she worked for a time as a substitute teacher) in a grocery store encounter. It’s not the same thing, she notes, as “homeless.”

The film charts Fern’s life as a nomad, living out of her modified van, working the seasonal shifts at Amazon fulfillment centers, beet processing plants, or as part of a janitorial crews at an RV park, in a job set up by her fellow migratory nomad, Linda May. That latter role is played by the “real” Linda May, who is not famous or an actress but is wholly effective in front of a camera. Throughout “Nomadland,” real people crisscrossing the country in their vehicles, finding home and connection where they can, ease onto the screen as fictionalized versions of themselves.

Zhao’s ensemble combines familiar actors (McDormand and David Strathairn, equally effective as her friend, potential lover and fellow traveler) with real-life nomadic personalities. In Quartzsite, Ariz., Bob Wells runs a how-to RV camp, and his Santa-like countenance fills the frame every time he gets a close-up.

Zhao’s partner and cinemaotographer, Joshua James Richards, shot Zhao’s previous films, “The Rider” (2018) and “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015). He does far more than capture postcard-worthy sunsets. His knack for catching people in their newfound element is extraordinary. As “Nomadland” unfolds, Fern reveals a bit more of her story, while her present-day life, after the fallout of the Great Recession, proceeds from Nevada to Arizona to the Dakota Badlands to the Pacific coast.

On a first viewing, it feels to me a shade less wonderful than “The Rider,” with fewer sharp edges and a tad more contrivance. Small matters. I love it anyway, and will in full about it closer to its December release. While there’s little or no outright expression of religious faith in “Nomadland,” Zhao and company have given us a glancing but evocative state-of-the-nation character study. In its own spiritual fashion, Fern’s story becomes one about the character of a nation, and an America desperately searching for the ribbon of highway (to quote Woody Guthrie) to take us all the way home.

“Nomadland” is scheduled for a Fox Searchlight Pictures release Dec. 4.

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‘NOMADLAND’

3.5 stars

MPAA rating: R (for some full nudity)

Running time: 1:48

Premieres: Dec. 4, subject to change.

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