In The Short History of the Long Road, Nola and her father are modern nomads, living in a van that has an equal chance of stalling or starting at any given moment. They travel from town to town, taking on odd jobs while Nola is homeschooled from whatever books she’s been able to sneak out of public libraries. They live a strange life, but they have each other.

That is, until they don’t. When Nola’s father dies an untimely death from a stroke, the film becomes no longer about Nola and her father against the world, but rather Nola trying to learn how to become a part of the world. One side of her longs to put down roots and become a member of a community, but she’s handicapped by the simple fact that sticking around is not a skill that Nola has ever been encouraged to cultivate. How can you exist in the world when you’ve only ever experienced the beginnings of friendships, small fragments of movies, frustrating moments of a regular life, before you’re forced to move on to the next town?

The Short History of the Long Road is about learning to find closure in the things that have run their course, but also trusting others enough not to pull a vanishing act at the first sign of minor complications. When Nola’s father first dies, she is thrown into survival mode, bouncing from town to town just trying to make ends meet. She plays house, imitating the domestic routines she has never been allowed to participate in, but never gets it quite right.

She begins by squatting in an abandoned house only to have it overrun by skateboarders, then staying with a Christian foster family that scares her off after the mother loses her temper when she discovers Nola giving one of the pre-teen children an impromptu driving lesson. In both scenarios, she fails, and is willing to pick up and run without much heartache. It’s only when her beloved van breaks down and she befriends a mechanic (Danny Trejo) in New Mexico that she begins to find what could grow into a makeshift home and family, if she would let it.

The Short History of the Long Road rests a tremendous amount of responsibility on the shoulders of its young star, Sabrina Carpenter, who until this point has been best known for her work on Disney Channel’s Girl Meets World. For all intents and purposes, this is her grand entree into feature film territory, and she owns it. Carpenter has an incredible screen presence and is able to communicate so much with very little.

As Nola, she’s wounded, vulnerable, and unsure of herself, but also stubbornly independent. Her need to prove her self-reliance verges into a prickly standoffishness occasionally, but at other times her desperate desire to be accepted is overwhelming. Every second of her emotional journey feels real, and despite her rash behavior and defensiveness, you can’t help but connect with her. If this is what Carpenter is capable of, she should have a wonderful acting career ahead of her.

If the film has a weakness, it’s that by having Nola leave so many people and places behind, the supporting characters aren’t developed as well as they might be. It makes perfect sense with the logic of the narrative — Nola is cultivating significant relationships with many of them, so how could we? But it does have the unfortunate side effect of preventing us from connecting with them in any substantial way. The Short History of the Long Road is a more contemplative coming-of-age drama than most, but despite its frequently weighty subject matter, it never drags or becomes oppressively dark. Nola gives us proof that people can learn and adapt and grow, no matter what.

Rating: ★★★½

Directed by: Ani Simon-Kennedy

Cast: Sabrina Carpenter, Maggie Siff, Danny Trejo, Steven Ogg