Nola has spent her entire young life on the road. And not just moving from town to town, but state to state, criss-crossing the country alongside her beloved father Clint, barely staying in one place long enough for a sit-down meal. It’s not a bad life (and it’s only partially the product of Clint’s low-simmering disdain for traditional ways of being; mostly, he just seems to enjoy it), but Nola is beginning to expect that there might be more out there for her. In Ani Simon-Kennedy’s pleasant, if predictable “The Short History of the Long Road,” the cracks between what Nola (Sabrina Carpenter) and Clint (Steven Ogg) want are showing long before they’re blown wide open.
A meandering coming of age tale that quite literally pushes off into unexpected diversions, “The Short History of the Long Road” doesn’t blaze new trails, but it does provide a platform for Carpenter’s evolving performance and Simon-Kennedy’s skilled eye. While Simon-Kennedy’s characters occasionally avoids the cliches of similar movies, nothing about the film’s plotting surprises, as Nola aimlessly drives in search of what eventually amounts to a found family.
Nola and Clint have been on the road so long that teenage Nola can’t even remember a home without wheels. Their entire life is each other and their trusty Westfalia van, which ably carries them on their many journeys (for most of the film, those trips are confined to the stunning American Southwest). Nola’s mom is long gone — as Clint puts, “she zigged, and we zagged” — and is only referred to as “Cheryl,” and only in stilted conversation. Without a formal education, Nola has still thrived, eagerly devouring all sorts of books, though her father’s resistance to settling down means she’s never had her own library card, instead filching textbooks when she’s able.
It may sound romantic, but it’s also claustrophobic, and as Clint brusquely gets up in the middle of a movie (that’s how short his attention span is) and Nola gazes off at a pack of “normal” teenage girls, it’s clear that the divide is deepening between them. And then a sudden tragedy pulls them apart forever, and a terrified Nola must strike out on her own.
While early scenes of Carpenter emoting don’t quite works, the actress grows into the character over time, even as Nola seems less capable of understanding herself than ever. With Clint gone, Simon-Kennedy folds in a steady stream of new supporting stars to challenge Nola — it’s never a question that Cheryl will eventually be one of them, but Simon-Kennedy and the film spin their wheels for far too long before she enters, played by a restrained Maggie Siff — with most of them treating the scared teen with necessary kindness. It’s not that darkness isn’t a part of the film, but that “The Short History of the Long Road” approaches even the most tense interaction with a bent toward positivity in all people. It’s, in short, nice.
As Nola struggles with the pull of the road and the sense that she might want to pull over for awhile, “The Short History of the Long Road” chugs toward its central story, involving a gruff but accommodating mechanic (Danny Trejo) and the local girl who hangs around at his shop to get away from home (Jashaun St. John). Each are fine-enough foils for Nola, but nothing ever pushes her (or the film) to explore much beyond what’s expected: she’ll have some stumbles, but she’ll eventually navigate herself to a world of her own making.
FilmRise will release “The Short History of the Long Road” in select drive-in theaters on Friday, June 12 and on VOD and digital on Tuesday, June 16.