2019 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Coming a year after Debra Granik beautifully covered similar territory in “Leave No Trace,” there shouldn’t be a freshness to “The Short History of the Long Road,” but there is. This indie drama may walk (or more aptly here, drive) along a previously explored path, but it does so with ample amounts of heart and humor. With a gentle spirit, a star-making central performance, and intuitive filmmaking, the movie overcomes any sense of derivation.
The best part of “The Short History of the Long Road” is the lead turn by Sabrina Carpenter. Her performance is brilliant, walking a very fine line and pulling off a very tough role. Her work removes almost all thought of the film’s somewhat derivative nature, focusing you in on the emotional story at hand. Her casting elevates the movie and lets the main character soar off the page and into our hearts.
Nola (Carpenter) is a teenager who has always lived life on the road. Specifically, she’s always lived in a van with her father Clint (Steven Ogg). They drive across the country, traversing mostly off the grid, occasionally crashing in foreclosed homes, though they’re not above periodic stops at the library or the movie theater. Clint fixes things for the money to get by, though having opted to essentially home school Nola through life experiences, expenses are low. They have a happy existence, even if it’s one about to come to an end.
When tragedy occurs, Nola finds herself solo for the first time. With vague thoughts of finding her mother, who she’s never met, she sets out. There’s kindness from strangers on the road, helping to ease her transition without Clint. Of course, the van breaks down, leading her to a garage run by the gruff but kindly Miguel (Danny Trejo). Nola gets herself hired to work off the cost of repairs, while searching for her mom. When she finds Cheryl (Maggie Siff), it’s not the meeting either of them are expecting.
Sabrina Carpenter is a revelation here. Her work in “The Short History of the Long Road” is empathetic and worldly, though still clearly filtered through a teen lens. Carpenter does so much with her eyes and expressions, lighting you up with a smile or breaking your heart with a glance. Steven Ogg and Danny Trejo are charismatic as positive male figures in her life, developing easy chemistry. Maggie Siff has a different rapport with Carpenter, though that subplot is slightly shortchanged towards the climax. Rusty Schwimmer makes up part of the supporting cast, playing a good samaritan, yet all eyes are on Carpenter.
Writer/director Ani Simon-Kennedy makes a conscious choice to not lean into the hardness of this life. She doesn’t glorify this form of living, but the highs are seen more than the lows. The latter consists more of Nola not having connections with fellow teens or seeing the ends of movies, as opposed to actual bodily harm. That may be fairly aspirational, but Simon-Kennedy’s choice of tone fits “The Short History of the Long Road.” She’s telling a specific type of coming of age story, one she largely is able to successfully capture. Things wrap up a bit too neatly, though that’s a tiny quibble at the end.
Despite familiar narrative ground, “The Short History of the Long Road” finds its own path. The less you think about “Leave No Trace” or something like “Wendy & Lucy,” the better. Carpenter, Simon-Kennedy, Trejo, and company are able to do their own thing with the familiar concept. For Carpenter alone, this would be worth recommending. The whole package makes it one of the better titles to screen so far at Tribeca this year.