That ribbon of highway

Japan release date: March 26, 2021

After the financial collapse of the Nevada company town she lives in, Fern (Frances McDormand — hard to picture anyone else in this role) refits her van and hits the road, taking odd gig jobs here and there, sleeping where it’s cheapest and generally exploring life outside normal society. David Strathairn is the only other actor in the movie, the rest of the cast is made up of real-life nomads playing themselves. That this empathy for the peripatetic all works so effectively is a small miracle.

Chloe Zhao has fashioned a unique take on what it means to be free. Her impossible-to-categorize film, based on a novel by Jessica Bruder, is a realist, transcendent, lyrical, uniquely meditative and gently questioning observation of the American soul. 

Note: Your humble reviewer spends three or four months a year in a van wandering North America and has been to at least three of the spots depicted in the film, including the line-dancing bar in Quartzsite. And though my van is twice the size and vastly more accommodating, I can certainly relate to a certain restlessness of spirit. It’s about searching for something, or maybe escaping something, and not even being sure what that something is. Different people will take away different things from this film, but they will probably all mean something. 

A few moments in the film especially struck home for me. First, when her granddaughter asks her if she’s homeless, she replies, “No, dear. Just houseless.” And then when, unable to sleep in her relatives’ guest bedroom in the middle of the night, she sneaks out to sack out in her van. I totally get that. And third, the awesome, empty vistas through which she drives, captured so beautifully by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. 

Don’t miss this film. (107 min)

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