Hair streaked in sunshine, Nola (Sabrina Carpenter) has been stripped down to a sort of rawness that can only be found along the sun-soaked roads of the American West. She is leaving again, pushing off with her scattered father, Clint (Steven Ogg), on an adventure to nowhere or everywhere. Their material lives have been shrunken down to the size of their van (a Volkswagen Westfalia) and their only emotional attachments are to each other. The freedom they seem to have found is enviable. Though her father seems content with their nomadic, off-grid lifestyle, Nola casts pining glances towards girls in movie theaters and library books she cannot check out. Then, Clint dies in the middle of the road, hands still on the wheel and Nola shakes, eyes dry, heartbeat ringing in her ears. Social services try to wrangle her in the hospital, but she slips from their grasp and makes off with the van, alone. Then, after days spent aimlessly wandering, Nola decides to return to Albuquerque in search of her mother (Maggie Siff), whom she has never known more than her first name.
The Short History of the Long Road, the sophomore feature of director Ani Simon-Kennedy, weaves a wonderfully refreshing narrative, one that acknowledges the rather unexplored realities of what it means to come of age as a nearly parentless, transient teenage girl. Nola is used to instability – her father never had a regular source of income; She has never stayed in one place long enough to make any pronounced impression nor has she had enough socialization to be truly comfortable around others. As charming as she is, she is clumsy and unpracticed at reading people. Desperate for emotional attachment, Nola’s primary objective becomes finding her family, both biological and logical. Nola is a captivating character and this role is a refreshing one amongst Sabrina Carpenter’s collection of credits.
Though there are places where the story feels as though it could be fleshed out more, different threads worth unspooling in greater detail, the chosen subject matter is where the film shines – focusing on a narrative that goes largely ignored. Aside from the more obvious concentration on teenage transience and the impact of under-resourced social services, the film also delves into themes of forced motherhood and abusive parental figures. Blue (Jashuan St. John), the first real friend Nola makes, suffers physical abuse at the hands of her father, the reason for her emotional detachment. Their friendship swiftly develops into one of quiet solidarity and unspoken similarity; Both girls live, generally, without mothers and have deeply complicated relationships with their fathers. Cheryl, as genuine as she is, is as scattered as Clint and completely unused to motherhood. Her natural warmth is not enough to make her comfortable around Nola, who she loves but does not know how to care for.
In the hands of cinematographer and producer Cailin Yatsko, the camera traces the contours of the New Mexican landscape with as much attentiveness as it traces Nola’s features. The aesthetics of the American West naturally lend themselves to beautiful cinematography and there are plenty of moments in this film that do not disappoint. The final scene, in particular, is quite gorgeous. More attention paid to developing a singular, stand-out assemblage of visuals might have added to the film’s prominence. As much as it offers a unique perspective and manages to avoid falling into cliches, the narrative does become predictable. It averts darkness in favor of painting the world as a fairly positive place, something that is not necessarily a flaw but does seem to flatten the story.
Adding itself to the ranks of a good many underrated yet significant and surprisingly impactful coming-of-age films, The Short History of the Long Road is a sweet, unhurried film. It is a full-bodied narrative of resilience, tracing the quiet freedom of a life on the road – a life of burgeoning independence and emotional growth.