Watching The Lucky Ones, one could conclude that the United States is as unpleasant, and almost as dangerous, as Iraq, surely an unintended message of this well-intentioned film about three soldiers on medical leave from the war. As T.K. Poole (Michael Peña), Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams) and Fred Cheever (Tim Robbins) make their way from New York to Las Vegas, they survive a bar brawl, car wreck and roaring tornado, not to mention earnest fundamentalists, eager sex workers and patriotic swingers. But this amicable buddy movie by Neil Burger (The Illusionist) has heart—the writer-director evokes genuine empathy for his unlikely trio unexpectedly caught up in stateside culture clash—although our warriors must wonder, like Country Joe, what they’re fighting for by the time they reboard the plane to Baghdad.

T.K. and Colee have been granted leave while they recover from wounds. Cheever, an Army reservist, has been discharged because of a back injury. Strangers when they meet, they join forces to rent a car after their connecting flights are cancelled because of a power outage. (Burger, an economic director, makes double use of this contrivance to establish his characters, who react to the energy blackout as though it were a terrorist attack.) Cheever wants to drive straight through to St. Louis so he can reunite with his family. T.K. and Colee figure they can fly from there to Vegas, where he plans to seek out special medical attention (professional hookers to help him with impotence induced by shrapnel in the groin), and she hopes to find the parents of her boyfriend killed in action.

Complications ensue, needless to say, the main one involving Cheever’s wife (Molly Hagan), who has decided she likes living alone and is moving out now that her husband has returned. In addition, the plant where Cheever expected to resume work has closed, especially awkward because his son (Mark L. Young) has been accepted at Stanford—if he can come up with $20,000 for his share of the tuition. Suffering from shock and awe, Cheever decides to tag along with his new friends to Sin City, where he might get lucky and solve at least one of his problems.

Improbable as all this sounds, Burger pulls it off, moving the narrative along at a brisk pace that keeps us from considering it too closely. Road movies are episodic by nature—when the trio stops at a garage for emergency repairs, why not provide a detour to the evangelical church next door?—and anything can happen so long as we remain interested in the characters. That’s the strength of The Lucky Ones: We like T.K., Colee and Cheever, three people with nothing in common except the war which, they come to realize, has shaped them ineluctably for better or worse.

It helps, too, that one of this traveling band of brothers is a sister, that one is grey if not exactly wise, that one is Hispanic from an Army family…it makes an old formula seem fresh. Burger doesn’t condescend to his material and avoids sententious politics—he lets his characters be themselves, coaxes excellent performances from his cast (especially McAdams, who delivers a first-rate, absolutely believable performance), and doesn’t try to make a statement. That is to say, The Lucky Ones is a good small movie, a true independent film.