5 Great “Road” Movies
The Straight Story
It’s no secret that road-trip movies are usually metaphors for the characters’ inward journeys, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. Road trips are particularly well suited to American filmmaking, thanks to the vastness of the North American continent and the highway system that transects it. With all those thousands of miles available, there’s no story that can’t be told. The following examples represent a collection of human types as various as the regions they travel and the vehicles they travel in.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006)
If any movie can be described as dark and light at the same time, it’s this one. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine is a comedic gem with a bitingly funny script by Michael Arndt.
Olive (the wide-eyed, adorable Abigail Breslin) is an average-looking but unusually determined seven-year-old girl. She’s been training for the Little Miss Sunshine competition, coached by her foul-mouthed grandfather (Alan Arkin is the
embodiment of a man powered by pure sarcasm). Her exhausted, underappreciated mom (Toni Collette) convinces her hypercritical dad (Greg Kinnear) to drive the family from Arizona to California for the contest.
Along for the ride are Olive’s angsty teen brother
(Paul Dano), who’s stopped speaking in honor of Friedrich Nietzsche, and her gay uncle (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar who’s fresh out of the hospital after trying to off himself over a failed love affair. The script’s best moments happen in the van on the highway as this crazy bunch of characters spar with each other.
THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)
Family is also the driving force behind The Straight Story, and this time the journey moves from darkness into light. But don’t expect the revelations to announce themselves in Hollywood fashion. This movie takes its pace from the people and landscape of the rural Midwest—long, slow, patient, inevitable. While it might be a surprising piece of work to come from David Lynch, it’s one of his best films. The screenplay, based on a true story, is by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, who also edited the movie.
Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), an elderly Iowa man, learns that his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a stroke. With his eyesight too poor to drive, and no available bus service, Alvin hitches a trailer to a 30-year-old John Deere riding lawn mower and sets out toward Wisconsin to heal the rift with his brother
while he still can. The story is told through Straight’s interactions with strangers along the way, as he quietly doles out wisdom and humbly accepts small kindnesses. Sissy Spacek is wonderful as his special-needs daughter who holds down the home front while he’s away.
Profound but never preachy, the script is often very funny and the visuals rewarding. Rich green farmland melts into gray autumn sky, forming a continuous backdrop, the work of Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis. A / G / I / V
AMERICAN HONEY (2016)
Family doesn’t always mean blood relations, but chosen families can be just as challenging as biological ones. That’s one of the themes of American Honey, the ruthlessly hyper-realistic road movie written and directed by Andrea Arnold.
A young woman named Star (Sasha Lane) is stuck in poverty and an abusive relationship, so she doesn’t need much convincing when slick-talking Jake (Shia LaBeouf) tells her he can get her a job selling magazines in Kansas. She joins up with his band of scarred and scared people all seeking some strand to hold onto in life. The van they travel in acts as a protective chamber, letting them be their true selves in safety. Whenever the van stops and its inhabitants have to venture out, we see the “normal” world through their eyes, as a harsh, hostile place that can’t adapt to accept outsiders.
As the team’s leader, Riley Keough is an unsettling combination of maternal and cold. Arnold is careful to
Where to See Some Road Movies
Little Miss Sunshine, American Honey, and My Own Private Idaho are available on all of the non-subscription streaming services as well as Kaleidescape. You won’t find The Straight Story on YouTube or Kaleidescape, and Transamerica isn’t on Kaleidescape.
A = Amazon Prime / G = Google Play
I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / Y = YouTube
avoid stereotypes among the troubled young people, focusing on specifics that make them individuals. A standout is Arielle Holmes, who plays Pagan, a tiny, delicate woman obsessed with Darth Vader because she understands the darkness he represents. A / G / I / K / V / Y
While it’s not as original in its structure as any of the previously mentioned films, Transamerica is groundbreaking for its subject matter. A trans woman in L.A., only one week from her transition surgery, is amazed to discover that she has a 17-year-old son in New York. He’s in jail with no one to help him. She shows up, bails him out, and offers to drive him to California. But she neglects to mention that she’s his dad.
The script by director Duncan Tucker, while satisfyingly emotional and hilarious, uses the road-trip trope in predictable ways to develop, destroy, and rebuild the main characters’ relationship. Still, the issue of a young person discovering his parent is trans is new enough to cinema that it’s well worth exploring. Felicity Huffman is completely convincing as Bree, the trans woman, even if activists at the time were disappointed that a trans actor was not cast in the role. As her son Toby, Kevin Zegers hits the right range of teen overconfidence, rage, and sexual confusion. Graham Greene makes a wonderful cameo appearance as a good Samaritan who helps and befriends them as they pass through Texas. A / G / I / V / Y
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)
Most road trip movies are about completing a journey; My Own Private Idaho is about how we are stuck being whoever we are, no matter how far we travel. River Phoenix is Mike, a homeless narcoleptic who turns tricks to scrape together a living. Keanu Reeves is Scott, heir to a fortune, who turns tricks because it amuses him to dabble “in the life” until he inherits his money.
Mike is in love with Scott; Scott acts like Mike’s friend—he even drags him to safety when his narcolepsy strikes, over and over—but friendship has no meaning to him. Their ragtag band of misfits is lorded over by Bob Pigeon (William Richert), aka Fat Bob, who is their Falstaff. Just so you don’t miss that allusion, writer/director Gus Van Sant wrote Bob’s scenes in iambic pentameter.
As for the road-trip element—well, there’s definitely a road. The movie begins with an endless black highway cutting through the flatness of Idaho (cinematographer John J. Campbell captured some breathtaking vistas). Mike stands on the shoulder, with no car in sight. This film is largely about what isn’t there. As Mike and Scott travel around—to Seattle, Portland, Idaho, even to Rome—it doesn’t matter how they got there. The places have roads between them, but just like Mike’s narcoleptic experience of the world, much of their surreal journey is riddled with blank spots. Even if you know what road you’re on, you might still be lost. A / G / I / K / V / Y
—Anne E. Johnson