An Ode to the Road Trip Movie, by Sam Butler

Consider these:

Rain Man(1988), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Zombieland (2009), Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Fundamentals of Caring (2016), We’re the Millers (2013).

Above are eight very different movies, of varying genres, varying levels of quality, and varying critical acclaim. We have a touching Best Picture winner, a depressing look at a dysfunctional family, a classic Steve Martin comedy, and a surprisingly good Netflix production among them. The eight are linked by one facet, though. They share the greatest movie format ever created—the Road Trip Movie.

Ask any director, writer, producer, actor, they’ll tell you: the Road Trip Movie genre is the pinnacle of filmmaking. It’s hard to articulate what makes the format so relatable, so engaging, so heartfelt. Riding along in a road trip with movie characters allows the viewer to feel like a part of the group. Watching them go through the wacky misadventures resulting from what should have been a mundane experience allows us to see them form a new perspective on their lives. When a collection of people (often strangers) interact in such a tight space as a car, friction occurs, tension is built, and both conflict and growth result. Not only do the characters bond as a result, but so, too, does the viewer.

There’s something comforting about the structure of a Road Trip Movie. The characters meet, and, whether voluntarily or reluctantly, embark on a long journey to achieve shared (or at least similar) goals. Along their way, circumstances change, their relationships strain, but in the end, they come out stronger. Even if they don’t achieve the goal they set out for, they’ll find they’ve accomplished something far more important.

Be it on foot, by train, in a car, or in an ice cream truck, the journeys undertaken by our Road Trip Movie characters inspire us, warm our hearts, and change our perspectives on what matters in life. And the best part is: the nature of the Road Trip Movie format is that you can plug in any goal, a vehicle, and some characters, and you already have a promising story.

Hey, that sounds like a fun idea. Here’s the movie road trip I would want to go on:


The goal is the most important aspect of the trip, because it informs the decisions for the rest of the categories. Here’s the options from each of our eight example movies.

Rain Man(1988)
After my father dies, I need to take my autistic brother from the Walbrook Mental Institution and bring him on a cross-country trip to convince him to move away from his home. I’m hoping he will stay with me long enough for me to get my hands on the $3 million inheritance left by our father.

Little Miss Sunshine(2006)
I have to take my suicidal brother in law, heroin addict father, wife (for now), permanently silent son, and overweight daughter to a beauty pageant in California to help her win the Little Miss Sunshine contest and prove that my family and I are winners.

Zombieland (2009)
I set out on a trip to aid Wichita, her sister Little Rock, and a cowboy-esque man named Tallahassee in avoiding the scourge of zombies that have overtaken America. After giving up on finding my parents, I decide to join the three in heading west and trying to make it to Pacific Playland in California.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
As the best reporter in Kazakhstan, I’ve come to America to learn what makes it such a great nation, and how I can bring that back to my homeland.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
After my flight is cancelled and I’m forced to bunk with the loud-mouthed Del Griffith, the two of us must overcome the insanity of holiday travel so we can make it back to Chicago and I can have Thanksgiving dinner with my family.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
After escaping prison with the two men I’m chained to, Pete and Delmar, I convince them to help me search for a hidden treasure while I try to regain my wife’s favor.

The Fundamentals of Caring(2016)
I’ve retired as a writer after my son’s death, and I’m starting a new career as a caregiver. When I learn that my patient never leaves his neighborhood, we embark on a cross-country road-trip to see the world’s deepest pit.

We’re the Millers(2013)
After my money and weed stash get stolen, I must go to Mexico and smuggle back a shipment of marijuana to resolve things with my supplier. Hiring a fake family and renting an enormous RV, I head off to make things right.

Even though it’s definitely the most dangerous, the road trip Pacific Playland also has the most fun destination. In addition, it looks kind of fun to shoot a zombie in the head, doesn’t it? I choose the goal from Zombieland.


The best road trip movie vehicles are the ones that don’t really work, for example the Volkswagen T2 Microbus in Little Miss Sunshine. The vehicle is at its best when it’s key source of drama in the movie. When it breaks down, the characters must work together to find an alternative solution, a process that forces them to work together and unite as a group.

But, at the same time, if my goal is to make it to California and not get killed by zombies, I’m going to want something reliable and safe. The RV from We’re the Millers is a good option due to its size, but it does break down in the movie, and that’s something I can’t afford in a world crawling with the undead.

Naturally, the best car choice if I’m running from zombies is the yellow Hummer H2 from Zombieland. The Hummer, which Tallahassee finds after Wichita and Little Rock steal and ruin his Cadillac, provides more than enough space for the four characters, and plenty of protection from zombies. As a bonus, it never seems to run out of gas.

Hummer H2, Zombieland


Because of my vehicle choice, a five-seat Hummer, I can choose four characters to tag along with me. However, food is scarce in the new zombi-fied America, and personal space is sacred if we’re going to be cramped in a car. Just like the movie, my Zombieland crew will have only four members. Here are the nominees from each movie for the three open slots:

Charlie Babbitt (Rain Man):
Played by Tom Cruise, Charlie Babbitt is a very intense car salesman, with a distant relationship from his family. He’s an ideal candidate for running from zombies; He’s aggressive, he’s focused, and he doesn’t care about his family (which is good because they’re probably zombies).

Frank Ginsburg (Little Miss Sunshine):
You’d think I’d choose Richard Hoover, the goal-oriented “winner” of the group, right? But no, the best option is Frank, the suicidal ex-professor, and the preeminent Proust scholar in America. I know what you’re thinking: “If you put a suicidal man in a hopeless world teeming with zombies, wouldn’t he just kill himself?” Honestly, maybe. But Frank is a good fit personality-wise for my zombie-evading team. He lacks an ego, which means he won’t instigate any fights along the way, and the fact that he’s played by Steve Carrell means he can do some killer Michael Scott impressions to raise morale. Plus, if he does kill himself that means more rations for me.

Wichita (Zombieland):
“Why not Tallahassee? He’s the perfect person for a zombie apocalypse! He’s a sharpshooter, and he’s fueled by an unquenchable desire to avenge his son’s death. He…” Blah blah blah. Wichita is Emma Stone. I’m picking Wichita. End of discussion.

Borat (Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan):
I’ll be honest: nobody from this movie is going to cut it in a zombie apocalypse. But to be fair to Borat, he did accomplish the goal he set out to achieve by bringing American culture back to Kazakhstan. I suppose it’s not totally inconceivable that he might bring something to the table for my team.

Del Griffith (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles):
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is another movie without a promising candidate for my team. The two main characters each have very compromising flaws, for Neal his control-freak attitude, and for Del his general annoyingness. For a team whose only goal is survival, though, I’ll take a guy who bothers me over one whose controlling nature could cause divisions in the group.
Delmar (O Brother, Where Art Thou?):
The O Brother, Where Art Thou? trio is a group of wacky, goofy, but loyal convicts. While any of them would make a good team member, Delmar has a slight edge over the other two. Everett is a little untrustworthy, as he mislead the other two for the length of the movie about what they were journeying toward. Pete, meanwhile, disappeared for a portion of the movie after being tricked by the Sirens, indicating that he might be a liability in a zombie apocalypse. Delmar on the other hand perfectly embodies the loyal sidekick character, which is someone who’d be a huge benefit to my team.

Trevor (The Fundamentals of Caring):
With muscular dystrophy, you’d think Trevor wouldn’t be an ideal candidate. And you’re probably right. But Trevor has the perfect fit personality-wise for my team. Trevor’s cold humor and sharp wit would bring laughs in a bleak world, and his affinity for Slim Jim’s is noticeably similar to Tallahassee’s love for Twinkies in the original Zombielandcrew.

Kenny Rossmore (We’re the Millers):
There are a couple reasons I’m nominating Kenny over the others. David the drug dealer doesn’t demonstrate much dependability. Rose really ruins her reputation with repeated rejections of David’s rules and regulations. Casey can’t complete my crew; Casey’s clever but too confrontational. Kenny’s quirky and casual, his compliant character clearly compatible for my crew.

The three characters I’m adding to my team are…

Wichita (Zombieland): It’s Emma Stone. I’m not going to pass up my shot to be in a car with Emma Stone for an extended period of time.

Tallahassee (Zombieland): My self-imposed rules be damned, I’m taking two from Zombieland. Tallahassee is just too good to pass up—his comic relief, gun skills, and cowboy-boot-wearing are all necessities for the team.

Frank Ginsburg (Little Miss Sunshine): This last choice came down to Frank Ginsburg and Delmar (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). After much deliberation, Frank came out (no pun intended) the winner for one reason: Delmar is kind of an idiot. I’m not 100% sure he wouldn’t try to let a zombie use his gun.


Goal: Zombieland
Car: Hummer H2, Zombieland
Crew: Wichita (Zombieland), Tallahassee (Zombieland), Frank Ginsburg (Little Miss Sunshine)

Yes, I did go a little Zombieland-heavy (fine, a lot Zombieland-heavy) in my example, but that’s just my personal preference. Any combination of these could be a good movie:
  • Borat drives his autistic brother cross-country in an RV to try to gain his father’s inheritance.
  • Trevor overcomes his muscular dystrophy to smuggle marijuana from Mexico in a busted Volkswagen T2 Microbus.
  • Delmar drives around in a ’49 Buick Roadmaster convertible to learn about American culture and bring it back to his home of Kazakhstan.

That’s the beauty of the Road Trip Movie format: its adaptability means that filmmakers are able to tell any kind of story. They can share a story that, whether comedic or dramatic, is always a compelling tale.

It’s formulaic—in a good way. The format provides the perfect platter on which the filmmaker serves up character development, conflict and resolution, laughs and tears. It’s an unequivocal fact: the Road Trip Movie is the greatest movie format ever imagined.

Actually, maybe I just really like Zombieland.