“The Short History of the Long Road” is a somewhat scant indie road movie about a father-daughter team roaming the American Southwest in a cozily appointed VW Westphalia RV van.
Teenage Nola Frankel (Disney Channel star and pop singer Sabrina Carpenter) and her dad Clint (Steven Ogg) have been on the road since Nola was a tot.
They’ve evolved a nomadic van culture unto themselves, which involves money-making via loquacious Clint’s handyman talents, but also more than a mild smear of chicanery: shoplifting, gas siphoning, foreclosed-house squatting, and sometimes other-people’s-swimming-pools-invading. It’s easy to see how necessity can come to be the mother of invention. And also stealing.
Clint’s homeschooled Nola and handed down his love of libraries (free books). And for a while it’s real nice. Sort of a quieter, kinder, much less criminally oriented, dad-daughter version of “Thelma & Louise”: traveling in a desert landscape with fun radio music. And Steven Ogg’s trademark Canadian goofiness and immense delight in making his hair look as silly as possible.
I was thoroughly enjoying Steve-as-Clint’s performance, especially his quiet monologue about how a 100-pound Pacific octopus can sneak through a cherry-tomato-sized aperture, eat a fish from another tank, and then sneak back into its own tank, but then Clint abruptly exits stage right, and young Nola is left to fend for herself.
She soon sees her choices clearly: get taken care of by charity, or do like dad and remain on society’s outskirts. The third choice is to go on a quest to find mom (Maggie Siff from “Sons of Anarchy”).
Nola van-drifts hither and thither, like a slightly feral juvenile hermit crab seeking a shell to hole up in. She quickly ditches a foster home, pays off van repairs by working for an avuncular auto mechanic (Danny Trejo), and befriends a beautiful Oglala girl named Blue (Jashaun St. John) who stands forlornly outside the autobody shop due to home-front dad-abuse.
All in all, it’s an emotionally muted environment, the most dramatic instance being when feng-shui-ing the van, Nola throws Clint’s clothes into a Salvation Army bin, only to soon after get blindsided with the anguished realization that his clothes are all she has left of him—and the bin is padlocked.
Will Nola find Cheryl (mom) based on the ancient photo of the Mercury Bar that Cheryl and Clint had in Albuquerque—and get closure? Will she go to college? Will she continue to drift? Will Blue ditch her mean dad?
While the film captures Nola’s constant, self-perpetuated miasma of shame of being kicked out of parking lots, apprehended shoplifting hotdogs, and filching leftovers from diners, it fails to stress the fact that the world is a seriously dangerous place for attractive, young, homeless teenage girls. While Nola’s resourceful and knows how to avoid the child welfare system, she’s underage, driving without a license, and basically penniless. She better not run afoul of law enforcement because then it’ll be the long history of the short road to jail.
Also, with this drifter lifestyle, it seems logical that Nola would have been more adept at stealth. At one point, she cluelessly allows herself to get seen, in the house she’s squatting in, by a crowd of aggressive male skater-punks who drain the house pool to skate in it, and then crash her squat to party on wine and weed. Had this film been one degree grittier, that’s a gang rape waiting to happen right there. I’m thankful not to see such images, but with all the trafficking going on today, while already somewhat sad and dreary, it might be better to make teenage female homeless drifting look even less romantic.
‘The Short History of the Long Road’
Director: Ani Simon-Kennedy
Starring: Sabrina Carpenter, Steven Ogg, Danny Trejo, Maggie Siff, Rusty Schwimmer, Jashaun St. John
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Release Date: In select theaters June 12, and on digital and VOD June 16
Rated: 2.5 stars out of 5