“The Short History of the Long Road” is a socially-conscious, intimate story about a daughter and her father, two nomads who live in their vintage camper van. Calling the open road home, it’s the only life teenager Nola (Sabrina Carpenter) has ever known. Her dad (Steven Ogg) is fully committed to the van-dwelling lifestyle, but Nola is beginning to feel even more like an outsider every day. The self-reliant duo drive around the American Southwest taking odd jobs for money and squatting in the occasional foreclosed house, making their lives off the grid work. But when a shocking turn of events leaves Nola on her own, she must rely on her street smarts and wits to survive.
Writer / director Ani Simon-Kennedy has made a timely film that’s both sad and empowering. It’s a perfect companion piece to other stories about Americans living on the outskirts of a society that has either abandoned them (“Leave No Trace“) or one in which they find it too constraining to survive (“Captain Fantastic”).
But “The Short History of the Long Road” isn’t an ordinary coming-of-age road trip movie. There’s a poignant authenticity to Simon-Kennedy’s story, and it’s one with a strong understanding of the human emotion of grief, loneliness, and the desperation for a sense of belonging.
Nola is a nuanced, layered character with an inner strength that’s beautifully expressed by Carpenter. She plays her character with a quiet vulnerability that feels like an authentic old soul. Nola loses all the safety nets she’s ever known, but embraces her independence with an empowering resilience an arsenal of street smarts. As a menagerie of interesting strangers enter and exit her life along her journey to track down the mother she never knew (Maggie Siff), Nola never loses sight of her reality and becomes the anchor that she needs to survive.
Films like this are so important because they illuminate the stories of those living in the shadows so that we can all gain a better understanding of the world we share. There’s no better way to convey this idea than with a universal message, and “The Short History of the Long Road” has so much empathy, truth, and realism, especially when it comes to its portrayal of sudden loss and grief, that it’s one of the most authentic and essential films of the year.