Simon-Kennedy, who wrote and directed “The Short History of the Long Road,” sets up Nola to win the audience’s sympathy. She shows us what Nola’s lost when her dad dies, and we get a glimpse of their counterculture worldview, helping us understand why she wants to keep his memory alive by staying on the road. For them, living off-the-grid means no family or support system in place to step in when tragedy strikes, so Nola is left to fend for herself not just physically and financially but emotionally as well. The character is so well-drawn out, her survival tactics thought out, that even though she still acts like a shy teenager at times, her fierce independence is never far from the surface. Sometimes, it even lands her in trouble.
Bringing Nola to life would have been impossible were it not for Carpenter’s deeply felt performance. The former Disney Channel star embraces the unkempt look of living on the road, without any glamor or heavy makeup and her hair so disheveled, it looks like she lost her brush weeks ago. Her performance is similarly understated but eye-catching. Carpenter’s eyes tell the story he can’t tell strangers. It’s written on her frightened eyes and forlorn face. The sporadic outbursts of anger and grief make her feel genuine. She’s trying to pass off as a grown-up, but she’s still only a scared child behind the wheel of a very big van.
During her journey, Nola comes to learn a few lessons of her own. She has to rely on the kindness of strangers without her dad there to intervene if things go south. She learns the hard way that sometimes the kindness of strangers has its limits. A few times in the movie, Nola tries to settle down and imagine putting down roots for the time being, but the road and the memory of her father call her back when she doesn’t fit in. It’s a different kind of fish-out-of-water story, where instead of failing to fit in with classmates or other people her age, she just doesn’t feel like she fits in any home.