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ANI SIMON-KENNEDY: THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD (2019) - VOD RELEASE

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SABRINA CARPENTER IN THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD

Girl adrift

We are on the road again with a vagrant parent-child duo against the world, like the one is Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, with a hint of Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic or Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete , with its abandoned, runaway boy. Clint (Steven Ogg) and his teenage daughter Nola (Sabrina Carpenter) have been traveling together for years apparently, living in an old customized VW van. Like Tom and her father in Leave No Trace and like the big family in Captain Fantastic, the adult teaches the child there is a better life off the grid. Tom and her dad are further off that grid, however; Nola and Clint are traveling the highways.

Nola has learned to fix things from her dad, notably vehicular repair, and she seems to like avoiding life in conventional society. She chafes at his domination, though. Going to a cineplex for entertainment, they auditorium-surf, but he never lets her see the end of a single movie. We don't get a thorough picture of their life as we do in Captain Fantastic and Leave No Trace. In fact the pairing is quickly abandoned as Clint (Steven Ogg), the father, suddenly dies, at the wheel. We have only learned a little about him and the relationship. It's set up for him to be cremated, and Nola bolts, driving the van, which she learned to do at an early age, to avoid falling into the hands of social services.

This movie suffers a bit from the start dealing with less promising material than the other films mentioned. Nola's meandering isn't like that of Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) in Lean on Pete, who is in a desperate flight trying to save a horse he loves. The personalities clearly haven't the vibrancy of the revolutionary family unit led by Viggo Mortensen's character in Captain Fantastic, though even that admittedly was more interesting than the action, which is also true of Granik's Leave No Trace. Only writer-director Ani Simon-Kennedy, who was a "camera trainee" on Midnight in Paris in 2011, cannot match the tough grainy specificity of Granik or the vibrant action of Ross. For a while Nola is just collecting leftovers, occasionally stealing, freeloading temporarily off a religious do-gooder. Half an hour has gone by before there's any hint of action. An overnight in a foreclosed house gets dicey when it's invaded by rowdy, druggy skate boarder guys. It's fun for a minute - Nola seems capable of standing her own - then she goes up to bed, and moves on the next day. None of this is interesting except it's a teenage girl driving a van, which is unusual and seems untenable.

There are two main events here. The van breaks down and Nola has to have it towed to a garage. It needs over $1,500 worth of work. She lucks out in this little New Mexico town: the garage owner is a warmhearted, eccentric loner called Miguel (Danny Trejo), who lets her work to pay for the repairs, the garaging of the vehicle, even a warm storeroom to stay in upstairs. Her next venture is to find her long-lost mother, who disappeared after she was born. Her new friend, a Native American girl, Blue (Jashaun St. John), whom she meets with regularly in the library, helps her look up identity information that leads her to find her mother's last name and location across New Mexico and head off there, saying goodbye to Miguel and dropping off Blue, who can't live with her abusive father any more, to stay with a relative on the Navaho reservation.

Nola's mother isn't what she expected, she tells Blue later. But what she expected I couldn't tell you. Cheryl, her mother, explains, more or less, why she left so early. She was depressed, and it was Clint, not she, who wanted a kid. Now she runs her own diner. Cheryl is played by Maggie Shiff, who made such a strong impression in her brief role as the Jewish department store owner Don Draper almost ran off with in Mad Men. She is strong here too, and real, but of course this role isn't informed by Mad Men's dazzling sense of style and period. Cheryl is like MIguel - she takes to Cheryl right away, lets her come to stay - but only temporarily. Maggie Shiff could have provided much more, if the screenplay had given her the material.

No need to tell what happens to the van (perhaps the warmest character in the film), how it comes and goes and comes again. It may be the van that's all that really comes home, since the movie ends with a jamboree on the edge of the desert for owners of antique VW vans, a chance for some scenic imagery by the very good dp, Cailin Yatsko.

It's said that Ani Simon-Kennedy grew up in Paris and now lives in New York. Perhaps she wanted a good dose of the American West far from cities. If so, here she got it. The people Nola brushes up with are all played by good character actors, but they aren't given enough lines. For there to be dialogue at all may be a new stretch for the filmmaker, since her first feature, Days of Gray, shot in Iceland, was wordless. This story shifts gears too often and never settles into anything satisfying. Sabrina Carpenter, who plays Nola, the central character, is natural, has charm, and is pretty. It can't be said that she has much to do or say or think. For someone with such a distinctive background, Nola seems curiously blank.

The Short History of the Long Road, 90 mins., debuted at Tribeca Apr. 19, 2019 and was in six other festivals, including Chicago, Santa Fe and Nashville. Released in the time of coronavirus, it opened in select drive-in theaters on Friday, June 12 and comes out on VOD and digital on Tuesday, June 16.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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