Summer is often defined by its barbecues and beaches, but the true essence of the season can be found in the passenger seat of a moving vehicle — windows down, music blaring, wind mangling sun-bleached hair. Summer is an escapist fantasy, promising paradise around every corner. It doesn’t matter where you’re going, just that you’re going somewhere. You’ll get there eventually. You’ve got time.
Technically, a road trip can take place any time of year, but regardless of what the calendar says, setting off on the open road will always carry the feeling of hope and possibility that fills the air from June to September. In film, the same is often true. Road trip–themed movies, regardless of their official seasonal designation, all exude summer’s intoxicating sparkle. The following seven cinematic journeys — brimming with adventure, discovery, and plenty of memorable mishaps — allow us to experience the warmth and thrill of a summer road trip all year.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Ridley Scott’s classic road trip film “Thelma & Louise,” starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, captures everything sacred about summertime: convertibles, silk headscarves, big sunglasses, and even bigger hair. Staying in the spirit of “no spoilers,” this ‘90s flick is a timeless and rare celebration of female friendship. It also easily passes the Bechdel test, following two women on what’s meant to be a harmless girls’ trip through Arkansas before it’s derailed by violence. Rev your engines, girls. We’re goin’ fishin.’ Stream on Showtime
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The late Alan Arkin won an Oscar for his portrayal of the grandfather in the deliriously charming “Little Miss Sunshine,” which plots the journey of a family en route from Albuquerque, N.M., to Redondo Beach, Calif., where their youngest (Abigail Breslin) is slated to compete in a beauty pageant. The family of misfits chugs along a dusty trail in a rattling old VW minivan, confronting the things that make them each different but ultimately embracing the tenderness and spunk that bind them together. Stream on MAX
Dumb and Dumber (1994)
Nothing says summer quite like a cross-country trek behind the wheel of a van disguised as a giant, shaggy dog. Though Colorado ski country is the destination of Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne’s (Jeff Daniels) fool’s errand in “Dumb and Dumber,” the levity of this slapstick play on the hero’s journey tinges the film with a summery glow. And with a prequel and a sequel, this franchise can last a long haul. Stream on MAX
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Though this early Tim Burton work stars a red bicycle instead of a car, it still falls squarely within the road trip cinema canon. As with anything from the Pee-wee universe, “Big Adventure,” starring the iconic late Paul Reubens as Pee-wee himself, is kooky and playful and full of twists and turns, dragging viewers along on an adventure to the Alamo, then to Burbank, with childlike wonder as its primary guide. Rent on Prime Video or stream with an AppleTV+ subscription
Tommy Boy (1995)
Holy schnikes, this road trip flick truly has it all: roadkill resurrected from the dead, young Rob Lowe, radio singalongs (“don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby?”), and the comedic genius of the late Chris Farley and his real-life BFF David Spade. The journey really is the destination for these two, who discover on the road that they’re better off as friends than as enemies. Aww. Stream on Max
Y tu mamá también (2001)
Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón bottles summertime and serves it up steaming hot, as two teenagers (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) and an older woman (Maribel Verdú) set out on a drive from Mexico City to the shores of Oaxaca. The film drips with sweat — as much from the sexuality radiating off its three central characters as from the heat of the sun over the Mexican desert. Expect cinematic sun flares, roadside cacti, and lots of running away from life’s challenges in this coming-of-age cult classic. Stream on AMC+
Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” is hardly a romp, but its interrogation of freedom and the American Dream — plus its jaw-dropping landscapes from the western United States — earn it a spot on this list of great summer road trip movies. Though Frances McDormand’s character battles isolation, loss, and disenfranchisement, a vein of tranquility runs through the film — similar to the tranquility that comes with rolling the windows down and feeling a benevolent August sun on your skin. Stream on Hulu