Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Chloé Zhao has become the voice of Americana. Her films focus on individuals with compassion and intestinal fortitude — the backbone of this nation. Her third feature stars Frances McDormand as a widow and modern-day nomad who lives out of her modified van while traversing the country looking for work. Apart from costar David Strathairn, the film features a cast of non-actors living the nomadic lifestyle. Highlighted by Ludovico Einaudi’s haunting score and Joshua James Richards’ vivid cinematography, “Nomadland” takes you on an unforgettable journey that reminds me of a Jay-Z lyric, “Say you looking for the real? Hey, well this is real as it gets.”

When writing about Zhao, the word storyteller feels more relevant than filmmaker. Her work blurs the line between narrative and documentary as in her previous two films, 2016’s “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and 2018’s “The Rider,” which brought us two distinctive stories about the Lakota Native Americans. With “Nomadland,” the focus shifts away from Native Americans but not their spirit — the first nomads were the Paleo-Indians who migrated to the continental U.S. during the ice age while these modern-day wanderers resemble a close-knit family or one big tribe that looks after one another.

McDormand returns for her first role since winning a second Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” She plays Fern, a 61-year-old widow who lost her job in 2011 after the Sheetrock factory in Empire, Nevada, shut down taking the town with it. Even the ZIP code was discontinued.

Living in an old white Ford Econoline van, nicknamed Vanguard, that she spent some time modifying to include some of the amenities of home including a stove, although the restroom is basically a 7-gallon bucket, Fern will be the first to tell you she’s not homeless, rather “houseless.” She has become accustomed to the nomadic lifestyle, evident by the number of people she has turned down who have offered her a place to permanently stay. The list includes sister Dolly (Melissa Smith), a former neighbor whose daughter Fern used to tutor, and fellow nomad Dave (played by wonderful actor David Strathairn). The two developed a friendship after crossing paths several times, and now he is thinking of moving in with his adult son’s family, and Fern is welcome to stay.

Based on the nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America In the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder, an investigative journalist whose experience developed McDormand’s character, the film illustrates how Fern is able to survive by working seasonal jobs including a top-paying gig at an Amazon fulfillment center during the holidays, a National Park camp host, a tourist attraction worker, and in a restaurant cafeteria.

Along her journey to self-sufficiency, Fern befriends other nomads including Swankie, Linda May, Bob Wells and Suanne Carlson. The characters feel so authentic because they are real-life nomads, some of who appear in Bruder’s novel, cast by Zhao to bring authenticity to the film. The writer-director has a knack for helping non-actors deliver such natural performances that it’s hard to believe they are not professionals. The process involves spending a significant amount of time with the individuals to build trust and openness.

“Nomadland” keeps you enthralled with fascinating characters who you probably wouldn’t even notice if your paths crossed.

There are plenty of visually stunning moments, including some incredible sunsets, thanks to cinematographer Joshua James Richards, a Zhao regular and two-time Film Independent Spirit Award nominee, and the score by Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi is so beautiful and haunting that it’s easy to see why Zhao chose the music for the film. It may seem that Einaudi composed the score specifically for “Nomadland” since it fits so well, when in fact the contributed songs come from the musician’s “Seven Days Walking” album featuring 80 songs, over six hours of music, inspired by a series of walks he took in the Italian Alps in 2018. It’s available on iTunes now.

There is a big possibility that “Nomadland” could sweep most of the major awards at this year’s Oscars and it deserves to.

Zhao is an incredible storyteller and the most important director to emerge on the scene over the last decade. I’m really interested to see what she’s going to do with Marvel’s “Eternals” after helming the big-budget project, which is slated to hit theaters in November.

(4 stars)

Opens Friday in select theaters and on Hulu.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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