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Review: 'Nomadland,' Chloe Zhao's Heavily-Tipped Drama

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

According to oddsmakers, the movie to beat at this year's Academy Awards is the reality-based drama "Nomadland." Critic Bob Mondello says it's a film fest favorite. That opens today in theaters and on Hulu.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: After losing her job, Fern is bidding farewell to Empire, Nev., while she still has the resources to get out. She's cropped her hair short, piled all her belongings in her white van and is picking up a few last-minute items in a store when she runs into a friend's daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) My mom said that you're homeless. Is that true?

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Fern) No, I'm not homeless. I'm just houseless. Not the same thing, right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No.

MCDORMAND: (As Fern) Don't worry about me. I'm OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) OK.

MONDELLO: And as played by Frances McDormand, she does seem OK, at least as she embarks on an odyssey across the American West, picking up work in an Amazon warehouse or a roadside kitchen or a trailer park. Oh, she gets thrown on occasion, say, by a mechanical breakdown that'll cost almost as much to fix as her van is worth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'd probably recommend taking that money and putting it towards a different vehicle.

MCDORMAND: (As Fern) No. Well, I can't do that. I can't do that - see? - 'cause - all right. I spent a lot of time and money building the inside out, and a lot of people don't understand the value of that. But it's not something, like, we can - I live in there. It's my home.

MONDELLO: Fortunately, there are others who offer support, folks also of no fixed address like 60-something Linda May, who encourages Fern to check out RTR, a sort of boot camp for beginner nomads.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

MCDORMAND: (As Fern) What's RTR stand for?

LINDA MAY: (As herself) Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. It is in Quartzsite, Ariz., out in the...

MONDELLO: Fern initially says no but ends up finding a whole support system in the desert, a nomad community.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

MCDORMAND: (As Fern) What's that?

DAVID STRATHAIRN: (As Dave) This is vegan.

MCDORMAND: (As Fern) No, I'm a carnivore.

MONDELLO: Filmmaker Chloe Zhao is blending fact and fiction here. She surrounds McDormand and a few other actors - including David Strathairn, who was serving there - with some of the genuinely houseless folks who were featured in Jessica Bruder's nonfiction book "Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century." Linda May, who suggested this real boot camp, is one of those real people.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

MAY: (As herself) I went online to look at my Social Security benefit. It said $550. Fern, I had worked my whole life.

MONDELLO: Another is 74-year-old Swankie, who is battling terminal cancer while offering Fern practical life lessons and memories of kayaking, spotting moose on the riverbanks, pelicans overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

SWANKIE: (As herself) Come around the bend, was a cliff and find hundreds and hundreds of swallow nests on the wall of the cliff and the swallows flying all around, reflecting in the water so it looks like I'm flying with the swallows and they're under me and over me and all around me. And the little babies are hatching out, and egg shells are falling out of the nest, landing on the water and floating on the water, these little white shells. It was like - it was just so awesome. I felt like I'd done enough. My life was complete. If I died right then in that moment, I'd be perfectly fine.

MONDELLO: The filmmaker combines this sort of found eloquence with breathtaking cinematography, trailer camp sunrises that beggar description and plain talk about resilience in a community that's had to learn to be its own safety net. "Nomadland" is a chronicle of the Great Recession that plays like a quietly thoughtful, real-life "Grapes of Wrath," with McDormand's Fern as its understated Tom Joad - strong, resolute, haunting. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI'S "OLTREMARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.