2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘The Short History of the Long Road’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Sabrina Carpenter in “The Short History of the Long Road” (Photo by Cailin Yatsko)

“The Short History of the Long Road”

Directed by Ani Simon-Kennedy

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

There comes a point in any career of a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon star who wants to transition from “teen idol” to “serious artist” that he or she takes on a gritty role so that people will change their perception of them as just another pretty face. Sabrina Carpenter, a singer/actress who has done several Disney Channel projects, has chosen her first such transitional role in the emotional drama “The Short History of the Long Road.” In the movie, she plays a homeless teen named Nola Frankel, who is searching for her long-lost mother, who abandoned Nola as a baby.

In the beginning of the story, Nola is living out of a motorhome van with her father Clint (played by Steven Ogg), an over-protective, paranoid vagrant who thinks that settling down in one place and living among society are dangerous for the soul. Although Clint and Nola don’t live completely off the grid (he makes money by doing odd jobs, such as repairs), he has some quirky habits that have affected Nola’s outlook on life. One of those habits is whenever he and Nola see a movie in a theater or on TV, he won’t let her watch the movie’s ending. We find out early on in this story that Nola’s mother leaving the family has a lot to do with why Clint is raising Nola in a nomadic existence. Nola doesn’t know any other life, since she was raised that way since she was a toddler, and Clint is very reluctant to tell her details about her mother.

Although some people might think this movie is similar to the 2018 film “Leave No Trace” (another grim story about a homeless, paranoid father raising his teenage daughter outside of the norms of society), “The Short History of the Long Road” is not the same kind of movie because it’s not as depressing as “Leave No Trace.” For starters, Clint is the kind of parent who has a sense of adventure, and he doesn’t want to hide his daughter from the world, whereas the father in “Leave No Trace” wants to live in such extreme seclusion in the woods to the point where people can’t find him and his daughter. Although Clint doesn’t trust the school system, he’s educated Nola and passed on a love of books to his daughter—they often go to libraries in their travels—and he has no problems interacting with people in a friendly manner when he needs to make money. Clint also doesn’t keep Nola isolated, since they go to restaurants, stores and movie theaters.

Still, the mystery over what happened to Nola’s mother is starting to weigh on Nola, and Clint’s vague answers (“she zigged while we zagged”) aren’t going to satisfy her any longer. The only thing that Clint will tell her is that when he and Nola’s mother were a couple, they used to own a bar together, and she left Clint and Nola shortly after Nola was born. Clint promises he’ll tell Nola more about her mother when they get to New Orleans (Nola was named after the city’s nickname), but before they get there, something happens to Clint in the first third of the movie that leaves Nola on her own.

Nola is self-sufficient enough to know how to drive a car (even though she doesn’t have a license) and she can make basic repairs, but as a teenage girl, it’s harder for her than it was for her father to get people to hire her for odd jobs. In addition to dealing with the stress of being homeless, alone, and trying to get money legally, Nola has to dodge anyone who might turn her in to child welfare authorities if they find out she’s under 18. She also still has the goal to find her mother.

Although Carpenter is fairly convincing as a distressed teen and brings a certain plucky spirit to the role, what isn’t entirely convincing is how the movie’s screenplay (which was written by director Ani Simon-Kennedy) glosses over some very serious issues of what life would really be like for a teenage girl in Nola’s situation. Nola has to be the luckiest homeless teenage girl in the U.S., because not once does she have anyone try to take advantage of her.

Yes, Nola gets into some uncomfortable situations where she has to contemplate whether or not she’s going to steal in order to eat, but somehow she gets enough money for gas to travel from state to state. Not once is she ever robbed, conned or enticed into criminal activities by people who see that she’s desperate for cash. We don’t know if Clint ever taught Nola any physical self-defense skills because she doesn’t need to defend herself from that kind of harm in this story. Even with the protection of living in a van, she gets into some dicey situations where, if this were the real world, it would be very unlikely that she would walk away unscathed.

For example, in one part of the movie, Nola ends up crashing at an empty house that appears to be unoccupied because the house is in foreclosure. When a rowdy bunch of young male skateboarders enter the house to skate in the empty swimming pool, there’s some initial tension between the skateboarders and Nola, but then the skateboarders invite Nola to party with them in the house. Here’s a young, attractive female in a group of intoxicated, rebellious guys who know she’s homeless and on her own, so it’s kind of unbelievable that none of them would try to make any moves on her.

And her luck continues throughout the story: When Nola (who looks underage and doesn’t have a fake ID) gets caught sleeping in her van late at night in a parking lot, a security guard just shoos her away, even though she’s obviously an underage child out past curfew time. When she tries to steal gas from a recreational vehicle camper owned by a senior citizen, he catches her in the act, but goes easy on her by sending her off with just a warning instead of calling the police. The entire time that she’s traveling, when it’s obvious she’s on her own, she doesn’t have creepy guys offering to “help her out,” even though in real life we all know this would happen to her.

At a convenience store, a female customer named Marcie (played by Rusty Schwimmer) figures out that Nola is homeless, and invites her to eat at a church’s soup kitchen where Marcie happens to be a volunteer. When Marcie gains Nola’s trust, she later invites Nola to live with her, her husband and the other foster kids they are raising. Nola doesn’t stay for long—Marcie is a little too strict and a little too religious for Nola—because Nola is really on a mission to find her mother.

At another point in the story, Nola’s van (which is nicknamed The Hulk) breaks down, and needs repairs that Nola can’t afford to pay. So, she convinces the owner of an auto body shop, a tough-but-tender taskmaster named Miguel (played by Danny Trejo), to let her work for him in order to pay off the cost of the repairs. It isn’t long before Miguel lets Nola live rent-free at the body shop. While she lives and works at Miguel’s body shop, Nola notices a Navajo Indian teenage girl close to her age named Blue (played by Jashaun St. John), who keeps hanging around. Nola and Blue strike up a tentative friendship, and Blue reveals that she doesn’t like to be at home because her widowed father is abusing her. Blue dreams of escaping from her father by moving in with an aunt, who has invited Blue to live with her on a reservation.

It would be too much of a spoiler to reveal if Nola ever finds her mother. Getting the answer to that mystery is one of the main reasons why “The Short History of the Long Road” is more engaging than it should be, considering the movie’s sanitized portrayal of being a homeless teenage girl. Carpenter does as good of a job as she can with the script that she’s been given. This movie didn’t need to have any big, histrionic moments or non-stop mayhem. In fact, Carpenter’s adept portrayal of Nola’s quiet desperation is one of the best things about the film. However, a little more realism about the dangers of being a homeless teenage girl traveling alone across the country would have gone a long way in improving this story.

UPDATE: FilmRise will release “The Short History of the Long Road” in select U.S. theaters on May 15, 2020.