A cozy and affecting tale about living off the grid, “The Short History of the Long Road” begins with a peaceful image of a young woman, whose long locks float over sunny pool waters. But her serenity gets cut short by her dad before she can fully immerse in the calm of the moment. And soon enough, the time comes for the duo to hit the road again in their vintage refurbished RV, not even giving the teenager time to finish her hot dog, cooked on a grubby grill that has seen better days.
With startling narrative economy — and a boost from Maurice Williams’ buoyant track “Come Along” — firsttime writer-director Ani Simon-Kennedy (“Days of Gray”) makes it unambiguous that the vacant house whose grounds the father-daughter had just enjoyed doesn’t belong to them and these interruptions are ordinary in the life of Nola (singer-actress Sabrina Carpenter, showing a different side of her talents following “The Hate U Give”). Evidently raised on the road by her on-the-move father Clint (Steven Ogg), who subscribes to a freewheeling viewpoint at odds with common norms of stability, Nola goes along with the wandering existence that’s been assigned to her, but perhaps involuntarily so, certainly not without a hint of protest. In that regard, the well-taught and self-sufficient Nola, gifted especially in car mechanics like her dad, could be a spiritual sister of Thomasin McKenzie’s character in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” another unassuming cinematic ode to those who live on the high-stakes fringes of American civilization.
Opening in select drive-ins June 12 (and available on VOD on June 16), Simon-Kennedy’s comparatively more mainstream movie isn’t quite as profound as Granik’s philosophic exercise that challenges capitalistic institutions — neither is it as devastating as Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete,” a similarly critical study of Americana seen through the eyes of a dignified homeless teenager. Still, “The Short History of the Long Road” capably demonstrates it’s got its heart set on the same societal inquiries around class, financial insecurity and the idea of making one’s own family with likeminded people.
For a short while, these notions feel a tad watered down and hazy, as Nola and Clint drift from place to place without a worry, take advantage of abandoned properties, earn what they can (sometimes, with a side of petty theft) and catch a movie or two when there is an opportunity. But once tragedy strikes and Nola suddenly finds herself on her own with nothing other than her broken motor-home, Simon-Kennedy’s social and political priorities rise to the surface at once.
Still, the filmmaker chooses to keep the film fairly quiet and light on its feet, without major dramatic spikes. Throughout, an array of helpful side players gently walk in and out of Nola’s life, while Cailin Yatsko’s tranquil cinematography majestically captures the vast, sun-baked New Mexico vistas. But that palpable weightlessness thankfully doesn’t come at the expense of respect and realism. Simon-Kennedy remains careful not to sugarcoat or romanticize the grim conditions a homeless Nola braves as she determinedly searches for her mother in Albuquerque — spending nights as a squatter in foreclosed homes, luckily dodging unsafe situations, stiffing diners and shops when left with no options, and so on. Along the way, Rusty Schwimmer’s good Samaritan Marcie opens her doors to Nola, only to reveal herself as a bit of a devout religious fanatic later on. Then almost miraculously, Danny Trejo’s good-humored auto body shop owner Miguel takes the young woman under his protective wing, giving Nola a job, for which he offers her a place to crash and fixes up her van in exchange.
While the introduction of Nola’s biological mother Cheryl (Maggie Siff), a hardworking woman with no real interest in parenthood, gives the nomadic film some sense of direction, it does very little to strengthen the story’s emotional power. Similarly, the film lacks something more from a random female friendship Nola embarks on with a local girl while living in Miguel’s garage. Still, there is enough substance here to propel “The Short History of the Long Road” forward through its minor bends and speed-bumps. Most of all, it is Carpenter’s restrained performance and air of wisdom, permeating the screen with an astutely soulful quality that’s tough to turn away from.