‘Nomadland’: Settle in for an instant masterpiece about the vagabond’s life on the road

Frances McDormand keeps up her streak of excellence as a no-nonsense widow living in a van down by the Amazon center.

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Fern (Frances McDormand) goes to a rendezvous with other van and camper dwellers in “Nomadland.”

Searchlight Pictures

“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. I’ve met hundreds of people out there and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. Let’s just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’ And I do. I see them again.” – Wisened veteran traveler of the American highways in “Nomadland.”

If we were to carve out a Mount Rushmore of actresses who have created many of the most memorable and formidable characters in film history, we’d have to make room for Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis and Frances McDormand and I’m going to stop right there because there are literally dozens of other worthy candidates — but definitely Frances McDormand, right? Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” and Mildred Hayes in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and Jane in “Friends With Money” and Sara Gaskell in “Wonder Boys” and Elaine Miller in “Almost Famous” and Abby in “Blood Simple,” etc., etc.

‘Nomadland’

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Searchlight Pictures presents a film written and directed by Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder. Rated R (for some full nudity). Running time: 108 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters and Feb. 19 on Hulu.

Yep. We gotta save a place for Frances McDormand.

McDormand has two best actress Academy Awards (for “Fargo” and “Three Billboards …”) and a total of five acting nominations, and she will surely be nominated for her epic and soaring yet beautifully grounded work in writer-director Chloé Zhao’s transformative “Nomadland,” an instant American masterpiece that feels like something John Steinbeck might have written had he worked in the early 21st century. It’s a crumpled-postcard road movie about the aftermath of an American Dream gone sour, when you find yourself so deep into your life you can see the last horizon, but you still have miles to go before you sleep — and you have only a vague idea about how you’re going to navigate that journey.

Based on the 2017 non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder, this is the kind of film that grabs you from its opening moments and keeps you in its thrall. McDormand’s Fern was a substitute teacher and her husband worked at the United States Gypsum Corp. in the company town of Empire, Nevada, but the mine closed down (and with it the town), and Fern’s husband Bo passed away — and now somewhere in her 60s, Fern is living out of a battered old van and getting by on seasonal jobs such as working at an Amazon fulfillment center over the holidays.

When Fern bumps into a former neighbor and her high school daughter in a big-box store, the girl says (not unkindly), “My mom said you’re homeless, is that true?” to which Fern replies, “No, I’m not homeless. I’m just … houseless. Not the same thing, right?”

At the aforementioned Amazon gig, Fern meets the senior citizen Linda May, who lives in an RV in an adjacent parking lot alongside Fern and dozens of other temporary workers. (One of the “perks” of the job is Amazon paying for the lot rental.) Linda tells Fern about the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a real-life gathering in the La Paz County Fairgrounds in Arizona, where hundreds upon hundreds of van-dwelling nomads gather for a communal experience of trading goods and services, participating in group activities, learning tips and tricks of on-the-road self-sufficiency, and making and/or renewing lifelong friendships. Fern likes to keep to herself and that’s just fine with the community, but she eventually connects with the likes of Bob Wells and Swankie, both real nomads playing themselves (as is Linda May).

There’s a decidedly off-the-grid, aging hippie vibe to the old-timer nomads, as embodied by Swankie, who is dying of cancer yet speaks with joy about the glory and the wonder of the sights she’s seen from her kayak, whether it’s nests of swallows or a moose family on the banks of a river. Fern’s more of a no-nonsense type, but she surprises us when she recites a poem to a younger nomad (don’t forget, she was a teacher), and when she shouts her name into an echoing canyon, as if to reaffirm her existence, her presence, her essence.

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David Strathairn (right) plays a fellow nomad who takes a liking to Fern (Frances McDormand).

Searchlight Pictures

The invaluable David Strathairn deserves best supporting actor consideration for his beautifully understated performance as the road-weary nomad Dave, who is retiring the odometer for good and is going to live on his adult son’s farm, and harbors hope Fern will join him. (The scene where Fern visits Dave and his son’s family for Thanksgiving is lovely and touching and will break your heart.) Fern also takes a quick detour to visit her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith), who is living a conventional life and doesn’t understand Fern (and probably never has), but instead of the expected establishment/rebel confrontation we expect, writer-director Zhao delivers something much more nuanced and subtle. There’s not a scene in this movie that hits a wrong note. Yes, it veers close to being an overly sentimental and sanitized slice of the nomad life, and yet there’s a docu-drama verité throughout.

If you miss this film, you are robbing yourself of one of the great movie-watching experiences of your life.

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