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‘Nomadland’ drops Frances McDormand into a rootless life on the open road

As with her breakthrough movie “The Rider,” director Chloé Zhao straddles a line between fiction and reality with “Nomadland,” parachuting Frances McDormand into what almost feels like a documentary about those living a rootless existence as nomads traveling across America. It’s a very good film, if one that cruises into awards season fueled by what feels like excessive praise given its understated appeal.

Based on the book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” the film stars McDormand as Fern, whose livelihood dries up in her small Nevada town, prompting her to pack her belongings into a rundown van and hit the road.

Along the way, she encounters a number of other modern-day nomads — many played by people actually living that life — forging passing bonds, engaging in philosophical discussion and sharing tips about surviving this hard-bitten path.

As with her Oscar-winning role in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” McDormand communicates a whole lot of sadness and pain with mere expressions. Indeed, Fern is a woman of few words, finding a recurring presence along the way in Dave (David Strathairn, one of the few recognizable faces beyond hers).

There’s a Zen-like quality to the collected wisdom that Fern receives, and the colorful, eccentric personalities that she meets, each of whom has a story to tell.

The van, meanwhile, basically becomes another character, to the extent that it’s a not-terribly-reliable companion on this journey of personal discovery, which doubles as a tour of America’s great open spaces. After a year in which many have found themselves cooped up indoors, there’s unexpected pleasure in that aspect alone.

Still, Zhao’s movie is really defined by its texture and tone, and there’s not a whole lot of meat or momentum to the story. Ultimately, it’s a window into a way of life that will seem foreign to most in the modern age, approaching its practitioners in academic fashion — offering a chance, without judgment, to walk (or drive) a few miles in their shoes.

More practically, the release is clearly timed as awards bait in this topsy-turvy, pandemic-lengthened season, and the film should pick up its widest exposure via streaming on Hulu.

“Nomadland” is a meticulously crafted little movie, anchored by a star at the top of her game. Yet it’s possible to enjoy the film on that level and still come away feeling if the film makes much noise in the awards hunt, it’s a sign that this was a relatively weak year.

“Nomadland” premieres Feb. 19 in select theaters and on Hulu. It’s rated R.

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