Writer-director Ani Simon-Kennedy takes a page from the Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik playbook with her Tribeca Film Festival world premiere The Short History of the Long Road. Like Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy or Granik’s Leave No Trace, this low-key drama focuses on a regional American woman trying to sustain herself through rough economic and emotional times. It’s derivative of both films, but, for a little while at least, not disagreeably so.
Disney Channel star/pop singer Sabrina Carpenter, significantly de-glammed, stars as Nola, a teen who’s been roughing it with her father Clint (Steven Ogg) since she was born. The pair crisscross the U.S. in a refurbished RV, stopping at the occasional foreclosed house to camp out and make use of any abandoned amenities. Clint gets money by offering mechanical repairs to friendly strangers, though Nola isn’t above picking through their drawers for jewelry or other trinkets.
For the first 15 minutes or so, Simon-Kennedy establishes the duo’s routine with an amiable mutedness. Even when they’re at odds, Nola and Clint barely raise their voices. It’s clear, however, that dad is increasingly aware of his daughter’s desire for independence. Life delivers on Nola’s yearning when Clint has a brain aneurysm while driving. Suddenly orphaned, the young woman has two choices: Get sucked into the broken-down American system she’s continuously avoided, or strike out on her own.
Nola chooses the latter option. Her only nebulous goal is to at some point seek out the birth mother (Maggie Siff) she never knew. But it’s mostly all wander, all the time. Cinematographer Cailin Yatsko has a terrific eye for scenery; everything from the sun-dappled open road to the inside of a movie theater has a gently forbidding quality. Unfortunately, Simon-Kennedy strains consciously and constantly for anti-drama. Any situation that could blow up — such as Nola’s extended stopover with an initially kind woman (Rusty Schwimmer) who reveals herself to be a micromanaging Jesus freak — will more likely be left irksomely unresolved.
If Nola doesn’t like where she is, she just leaves. And there’s a point, around the time she steals a credit card from an auto mechanic (Danny Trejo) who takes her under his wing, when the story’s start-stop-and-start-again rhythm, with almost all consequences elided, becomes tedious and unbelievable. It no longer feels like a unique life is being lived, but rather that the absence of any obvious turmoil is its own contrivance. Of course, the few moments when Nola does act out — breaking down after throwing away her father’s clothes, as an example — come off as false and actorish. So maybe count our blessings that the film prefers an emotive road less traveled.
Cast: Sabrina Carpenter, Steven Ogg, Danny Trejo, Maggie Siff, Rusty Schwimmer
Director: Ani Simon-Kennedy
Producers: Kishori Rajan, Eddie Rubin, Darren Dean, Cailin Yatsko, Ani Simon-Kennedy, Bettina Kadoorie, Dominique Telson
Executive producers: Fred Bernstein, Shaohua Huang, Harris McCabe, Robert Menzies, Stu Pollard, Eric Schultz, Krios Song, Na Yang, Mike Han
Screenwriter: Ani Simon-Kennedy
Cinematographer: Cailin Yatsko
Editor: Ron Dulin
Composer: Morgan Kibby
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
U.S. sales: Derek Kigongo (Paradigm Talent Agency)
International sales: Kishori Rajan (Reverse Osmosis Films)