By Joanna Langfield

Chloe Zhao’s astonishing film about American nomads is remarkable for what it is as well as for where it takes us. A beautiful blend of documentary and fictional drama, Zhao brings us vividly into the world of men and women who live on and, in some cases, for, the road.

Frances McDormand headlines as Fern, a widowed woman in her sixties, living in her van after she and her town lost it all in the Great Recession. I can’t imagine any one else playing this role, which not only demands the actress’s seemingly innate grit, but also offers the opportunity to co-star with real life nomads, people whom I assume would not just be wary of, but eschew any hint of Hollywood glamour. While our focus is on Fern, how she got to where she is and how she manages to make it work, we also get some extraordinary peeks into the people who actually live this life, modern day cowboys, traveling from place to place, existing on meager earnings, the bare essentials, checking in with others they meet “down the road” through Facebook. Every one has a story, tragic or liberating. And while their Americas may have not been ours, they are fiercely patriotic, flying flags and relishing in the spectacular beauty of the land so many of us just drive past. A lovely, as always, David Strathairn appears as a possible temptation for Fern, but the heart of the matter comes from her three main mentors, Linda, Swankie and Bob, nomads of a certain age who’ve seen it all and yet, have a lot left they want to see.

Modest in budget and tone, the film resonates with a layered poignancy I didn’t quite expect. But it’s revelatory power is undeniable, confident and as open minded as it is open hearted.