‘The Long Dumb Road’ review: Indie road-tripper soars high on its grounded approach

An image of the Sundance Film Festival poster for The Long Dumb Road.

“The Long Dumb Road” opens in New York November 9 and expands to L.A. and other markets November 16.

“The Long Dumb Road” is remarkably intelligent. It is propelled by people making dumb decisions, but there’s nothing simpleton about its characters or execution. The road movie was certainly in need of a new approach, and co-writer and director Hannah Fidell supplies it with a down-to-earth twist. The promotional material describes the film as a ‘bromance from a female perspective’, but that kind of simplistic summarizing does the “The Long Dumb Road” a disservice. Fidell’s film finds the road to be a mere outlet for the human condition. And gender is certainly not a requirement for a thoughtful character analysis with some humor thrown in for good measure.

Nathan(Tony Revolori) is destined for college. For the first time, he’s leaving the nest and breaking out on his own. In a symbolic moment, the camera sits inside the car, distancing itself from Nathan as he says goodbye to his parents. From that perspective, the words exchanged are inaudible. The viewer bears witness to his father handing him a wad of cash, the final thread stretching between his sheltered home life, and his new independence.

Behind the wheel of his second-hand minivan, Nathan sets out towards his Los Angeles art school. He has a long way to go, driving across Texas to reach California. With his vintage film camera at the ready, he makes a few pit stops to capture some sights through his viewfinder. After one particular gas station fill-up, he finds that his minivan won’t start when he cranks the ignition.

Nathan sets out on foot to find a local mechanic, and he arrives at a garage at an opportune moment. An employee is arguing with his boss, and walks off the job. He tells Nathan he can fix the car, and accompanies Nathan back to his vehicle. This man, Richard(Jason Mantzoukas), manages to fix his van, but he refuses any money for the favor. He does, however, ask for a ride to Marfa, and Nathan agrees, feeling somewhat obligated. When the Marfa bus station proves to be a bust, Nathan finds himself stuck with his unlikely new road companion.

The protagonists’ personal challenges are the heart of the film. While they do fit the odd-couple routine nicely, Nathan and Richard are unique entities with their own sets of struggles and desires. Richard may behave like a devil-may-care loose cannon, but he longs to connect with people and maintain a lasting emotional relationship with someone special. The more reserved Nathan struggles with an identity he feels hasn’t been defined since he was always stuck at home, living under his parents’ roof.

Aside from the really bad pun, character progression doesn’t settle for the easy road. The film resists the urge to ‘fix’ the characters, and instead doubles down on the exploration of the two and their strange new friendship. They adhere to a more realistic time table, instead of aligning their behavior to a forced, complete arc within the confines of film length.  Much like the vehicle carrying them, this pair will eventually end up somewhere, even if the final destination looks very similar to where they started.

The screenplay(written by director Fidell and Carson Mell) does hit some familiar rest stops, complete with the usual bouts of drinking and joint-passing. The duo happen to meet two women in a local bar when they stop for the night, but things take an unconventional turn when the morning comes. While the writing briefly dances with the tropes of the genre, it  remains steadfast in its focus.  The trip embodies all the rudimentary randomness of everyday life, so it is nearly impossible to accurately guess what will happen next.

This is a fresh approach to the road trip movie. “The Long Dumb Road” doesn’t feature wacky mishaps, or a gaggle of eccentric single-serving friends. In the same vein, it’s not a laugh-a-minute comedy either. These two main characters have little issue with navigating their way towards Los Angeles; it is the navigation of their own lives that proves to be the challenge. Their work-in-progress lives intermingle on the open road, giving them a chance to vent, commiserate, and support each other. The journey is often the focus in this type of film, making the characters feel interchangeable. “The Long Dumb Road” is a character study that just happens to take place during a long car ride, at least when the car manages to start.

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