Once you’ve noticed them — parked after-hours in a big box store parking lot, tucked under a bridge — you can’t stop seeing them.
The car, truck or van windows are covered with sun shields, or just cardboard. The windows are cracked open. Just a glance tells you they’re America’s motorized homeless, on the road — by choice or by circumstance — living lean, “off the grid” and well, poor.
“The Short History of the Long Road” paints a somewhat romanticized picture of #vanlife. This is about people living like that by choice, checking out of whatever social ills that worry the drivers the most — mortgages, TV, “failing” public schools. Writer-director Ani Simon-Kennedy gets a perfectly charming road odyssey out of that conceit.
Nola has “been on the road since before she could walk, her Daddy Clint (Steven Ogg of “Walking Dead”) brags. He preaches “the low-budget/high experience manner of living” to anybody who’ll listen. And daughter Nola (Sabrina Carpenter of “Horns” and TV’s “Girl Meets World”) is his captive audience.
She’s absorbed some of his handyman skills (he hustles work at home improvement stores they pass by), learned to drive their “Hulk” 1984 VW Westfalia from him, and shares his live-lightly-if-barely-legally ethos, that what America needs is “an army of self-sufficient agitators.”
Her mom? “She zigged and we zagged.” School? A kind of “school of life” version of home schooling applies. He taught her to “surf” theaters on their nights out at a multiplex, but to pass on their leftover pizza to the homeless.
But what’s young Nola — forever wondering about Missing Mom as they’re wandering from campground to parking lot to empty, foreclosed-on house — to do when Dad’s not there?
“Short History” is her story, struggling to manage the way her father always did with few of his skills and fewer scruples — trying to siphon gas, attempting a dine-and-dash.
As is the way of such stories, Nola encounters the kindness of strangers. Rusty Schwimmer is a hovering Earth Mother who takes her in, as part of her already-large adopted brood. Danny Trejo is the gruff immigrant mechanic who might be able to fix her long-out-of-production VW, and whose barking rebuffs at her efforts to finagle a work-for-repairs job out of him get him nowhere.
These encounters are so pleasant that the contrived betrayals of such kindnesses which Nola abruptly serves up go down easier.
As homeless road pictures go, this is more “Peanut Butter Falcon” than “Leave No Trace.” Dad’s not in the picture long, but there’s a “Captain Fantastic” element to the portrayal.
Carpenter shows no strain at capturing somebody who may not have learned table manners, but did learn who she can trust and maybe just how far she can push that trust.
I liked Simon-Kennedy’s decision to leave romance out of the equation. Nola is media-and-peer-pressure immune. Her focus is “wherever the road takes me,” that next meal, next tank of gas and maybe figuring out where her long-absent mother ended up.
Trejo, that burly tattooed pussycat of an ex-con, makes the strongest impression among the supporting cast, Mr. “None of My Business” who puts some effort into not showing the soft side that we know he must have.
It’s not as challenging a movie as those three antecedents I mentioned above. But “Short History” is certainly engrossing and entertaining enough to be in the best recent “feel good road pictures” conversation.
And it helps in supporting the (perhaps delusional) belief that this is somebody’s “lifestyle choice” the next time we see a parked van with the covered-up windows nowhere near a pay-per-night campground.
MPAA Rating: unrated, PG-worthy
Cast: Sabrina Carpenter, Steven Ogg, Danny Trejo, Jashaun St. John, Rusty Schwimmer and Maggie Siff
Credits: Written and directed by Ani Simon-Kennedy. A Film Rise release.
Running time: 1:30