Like Viggo Mortensen’s wildly unconventional father in “Captain Fantastic” (2016) and Ben Foster’s wildly unconventional father in “Leave No Trace” (2018), who raised their children off the grid and on the outskirts of civilization, Steven Ogg’s wildly unconventional father in “The Short History of the Long Road” is leading his teenage daughter down that same path. Their home is the road, as they live in a 1984 VW camper van and scrape out a living doing the occasional odd jobs — and pilfering a bit here and there.
It’s a glorious life, filled with adventure and freedom, at least through the eyes of Ogg’s Clint, who is forever upbeat and espousing his theories about the decay of civilization and the utopian vision he has of a world without conventional rules. But when Sabrina Carpenter’s Nola casts longing looks at girls her age kibitzing in a library or steals an envious glance at a family taking a selfie while in the concession line at a movie theater, Clint’s motives seem increasingly selfish and shortsighted. What’s to become of Nola down the road, when Clint is no longer around? Is she supposed to keep on trucking, or somehow magically assimilate into the real world?
That question becomes more than hypothetical fairly early on in writer-director Ani Simon-Kennedy’s lyrical and melancholy and visually stunning “The Short History of the Long Road.” After a sudden and unexpected development somewhere in Texas removes Clint from the picture, Nola literally takes the wheel of the van and starts driving. She is homeless. She is a teenager. She is on her own. And while Nola has an impressive array of survival skills as taught to her by her father, she can’t just keep driving forever.
Set against the backdrop of the American Southwest and filled with beautiful establishing shots countered by gritty, slice-of-small-town-life interiors, “The Short History of the Long Road” retains a hopeful vibe while never glossing over Nola’s predicament.
Armed with only an old photo and the name of an Albuquerque bar once run by her father and her mother, who left when she was baby (“She zigged and we zagged,” is how her father explained it), Nola sets out in that general direction and encounters the obligatory colorful cast of supporting characters along the way, including a churchgoing foster parent named Marcie (Rusty Schwimmer) who offers Nola a roof over her head and hot meals but quickly grows impatient with Nola’s lack of social skills and respect for the rules; the gruff but goodhearted auto repair shop owner Miguel (Danny Trejo), who offers Nola a job at the garage so she can pay off the parts and labor on the broken-down van, and a sensitive and quiet Native American girl named Blue (Jashaun St. John) with an abusive father who yearns to join her aunt on a faraway reservation.
With cinematographer Cailin Yatsko capturing the beautiful bleakness of New Mexico in burning tones of reds and gold, Nola actually manages to find her biological mother, Cheryl, played with subtle effectiveness by Maggie Siff. Cheryl is a hardworking, basically decent person and she tentatively welcomes Nola into her life, but through her body language and what she DOESN’T say, we understand exactly why she never felt like she could be a good mother.
With all the wonderful supporting performances, the true standout is Sabrina Carpenter, an actress-singer from TV’s “Girl Meets World,” who infuses Nola with such heart and such authenticity and such resolve. Nola’s life history is still relatively short and there’s a long and very different road ahead of her, but there’s good reason to believe she’ll survive and even thrive along the way.