The Short History of the Long Road
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Stars: Sabrina Carpenter, Steven Ogg, Danny Trejo, Maggie Siff
Writer/Director: Ani Simon-Kennedy
Decidedly low-key films like The Short History of the Long Road are seldom star-making vehicles, but I have a feeling a decade from now lots of us will look back at this big-hearted road movie and say, “Oh, yeah — that’s the first time I noticed Sabrina Carpenter.”
With a winsomeness and everywoman beauty reminiscent of a younger Saoirse Ronan, 21-year-old Carpenter has actually been around for a while, most notably as a wildly successful teen pop idol. But she really ought to give up the touring grind and concentrate on film — she’s that good in this movie, and she barely sings a note.
In fact, just about the only time Carpenter raises her voice in song is early in the film, as her 17-year-old character, Nola, is tooling along a New Mexico highway with her dad (Westworld’s Steven Ogg) in the beat-up VW Westphalia camper van that they call home. The two are singing along with a radio doo-wop tune, exchanging knowing smiles and laughing like they don’t have a care in the world.
And in a way, they don’t. Dad has designed for his daughter a life of detached hedonism. They sleep wherever they happen to park each night. He picks up pocket money by doing odd jobs. They seek out empty houses and lounge by their swimming pools. Dad is Nola’s teacher, her mentor, and her confidante. Clearly, these two live a life that is utterly entwined.
Then something happens that leaves Nola suddenly on her own. Without friends or known relatives to fall back on, she decides to take the wheel of that van and look for the mother who abandoned her as an infant. Along the way — after a brief but disastrous stay with a family that takes in stray kids — she befriends a gruff but big-hearted garage owner (Danny Trejo, being Danny Trejo in the best possible sense) and a young Native American woman (Jashaun St. John) who is being abused by her father.
Writer/director Ani Simon-Kennedy masterfully manages the ebb and flow of her script, giving each character who enters Nola’s transient life plenty of time to unfold their quirks and qualities. There’s a gentle whimsy to Simon-Kennedy’s storytelling; a sense that good people are everywhere around us — and occasionally we need them to set us straight when we wander off course. (One of the film’s briefest and most tender scenes involves an elderly man who catches Nola trying to siphon gasoline from his camper.)
Nola eventually does find her mom, Cheryl, who owns a struggling diner somewhere in the American desert — and it’s here that The Long Road takes its most intriguing turn. Happy to see her daughter, Cheryl nevertheless remains unrepentant about having abandoned her. She lets the girl sleep over and even helps her raise some money, but she’s clearly miffed when Nola turns up unexpectedly at work — and self-consciously introduces her to the staff as her niece.
Cheryl, a complex character to say the least, is played with perfect precision by Maggie Siff, the invaluable costar of TV’s Mad Men and Billions. Self-confident yet a mass of contradictions, Cheryl tries mightily to mine some trace of motherly instinct — only to find that particular vein came a cropper long ago. Likewise, although she’s yearning for the security of a family, Nola discovers the self-reliant streak instilled by her father is not going to fade any time soon. In a daring and effective writer/director choice, Simon-Kennedy chooses to show us the pair’s denouement from a distance, their words muffled, as if only these two could possibly understand the unique dynamics that draw them together and drive them apart.
The Short History of the Long Road flows with such moments. When the final fade-out comes, you sort of wish you could hitch a ride for the long run.
Featured image: Sabrina Carpenter in The Short History of the Long Road (Photo credit: FilmRise)
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