A family road trip movie in which we never quite know where the film is heading (and are often lied to about why), “Hit the Road” may be set amid the winding desert highways and gorgeous emerald valleys of northwestern Iran, but Panah Panahi’s miraculous debut is fueled by the growing suspicion that its characters have taken a major detour away from our mortal coil at some point along the way. “Where are we?” the gray-haired mom (Pantea Panahiha) asks into the camera upon waking up from a restless catnap inside the SUV in which so much of this film takes place. “We’re dead,” squeaks the youngest of her two sons (Rayan Sarlak) from the back seat, the six-year-old boy already exuding some of the most anarchic movie kid energy this side of “The Tin Drum.”
They aren’t dead — at least not literally, even if the adorable stray dog who’s come along for the ride seems to be on its last legs — but the further Panahi’s foursome drives away from the lives they’ve left behind in Tehran, the more it begins to seem as if they’ve left behind life itself. A purgatorial fog rolls in as they climb towards the Turkish border, and with it comes a series of semi-competent guides (one amusingly trying to steer a motorbike from behind a sheepskin balaclava) who show up to give the family vague directions as if they were clueless interns for the ferryman on the river Styx. A cosmic pall starts to shadow every scene, the characters growing further and further away from us with every long shot until they’re (literally) sucked into the shimmering abyss of outer space.
We may never know why Khosro (Hassan Madjooni) and his wife so urgently fled their home in order to smuggle 20-year-old Farid (Amin Simiar) out of the country and away from the autocratic government their introverted first-born kid must have offended somehow, but it’s clear that this family is speeding down a one-way street. “We lost our house and we sold our car for him to be able to leave,” one parent cries to the other. “Do you ever think of the future?” And yet it’s the past that’s being forfeited to pay for it. Later, the little boy will take stock of the situation and ask his dad if they’re cockroaches. “We are now,” Khosro grunts in response, most of his attention focused on the metal wire he’s using to scratch at the toes sticking out of his leg cast.
So it goes in a beautifully tender comedy that tears your heart in half with a featherlight touch — a film that swerves between tragedy and gallows humor with the expert control of a stunt driver, and knowingly sabotages all of its most crushing moments with a deadpan joke in order to keep Khosro’s family from running out of gas. “Hit the Road” is a story about people who have to laugh in order to stop themselves from crying, and Panahi commits to that dynamic with the unwavering dedication of someone who knows that his characters don’t have any other choice.
Considering that Panah Panahi is the son of the great filmmaker Jafar Panahi (still banned from making movies or leaving the country), and that the late Abbas Kiarostami was something more than a mentor to him, his feature debut would seem to follow in the formally inventive but aesthetically naturalistic tradition of the Iranian cinema that raised him. All the more so because masterworks like “Taxi,” “A Taste of Cherry,” and even the Japan-shot “Like Someone in Love” relied on cars for their unique ability to navigate the liminal interstate between public and private spaces. And yet, for all of the familiar ingredients that Panahi stirs into the mix — the subtle flourishes of self-reflexivity, his father’s dry sense of humor and broad political rebelliousness, Kiarostami’s penchant for staging critical dramatic moments in ultra-wide long shots — “Hit the Road” is the work of a filmmaker in full command of their own voice.
Some of that is owed to Panahi’s sly visual style and millennial reference points (a running joke about “Batman Begins” complements a more ruminative discussion of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and later a climactic “dubsmash,” if Instagram dads are still using that term), but so much of his movie’s unique character stems from the characters themselves. The sullen and vulnerable Farid — whose bid to escape Iran drives this elliptical story — is perhaps the only member of his family who doesn’t make an indelible mark.
Panahiha’s turn as a mother in crisis is alternately playful and wrenching; one portrait shot of her camouflaged against the mists of time is enough to singe this entire film into your memory. Madjoon’s curmudgeonly take on Khosro is the kind of thing that seems like it could spiral into sitcom caricature at any moment (“I fell down,” he groans when someone asks how he hurt his leg. “From grace”), but his hobbling brand of hopelessness stems from a deep well of paternal heartache. “You and your brother are ruining me,” he tells his “little fart” of a youngest child, as if trying to pretend that this whole movie isn’t a profound act of love.
Maybe he doesn’t want to let Farid know how much his family is sacrificing for him, or maybe Khosro just doesn’t want to admit it to himself. There was ample room for Panahi to shine more light onto that uncertainty in a 93-minute film that only loses momentum when it tips into vagueness, but what difference would it have made in the end? Khosro’s choice is already made for him. It’s telling that our only clear insight into his mind comes during a monologue he delivers flat on his back and half out of his head, his youngest son lying flat across his stomach and moving up and down with each weary breath.
That little twerp is another thing Panahi lifts from his dad and the broader tradition of Iranian cinema: The hyper-cute, transcendently annoying kid whose true nature is so irrepressible that he becomes a mirror capable of reflecting the deepest truths of the world around him. Not only does Simiar deliver one of the most well-calibrated child performances you’ll ever witness, his rascally innocence (and related confusion over Farid’s impending “marriage”) also provides a perfect counterweight to the unbearable heaviness that follows his family all the way to the Turkish border. His screechy voice blunts the solemness out of every terrible silence, a tendency that pays off a hundred times over during a tragicomic sequence that Panahi captures in a diorama-like ultra-wide shot; squint and you can see the boy’s tiny silhouette tied to a tree in the distance, flailing against the fates as his mother makes a deal with the devil on the far side of the frame.
It’s a moment that crystallizes how “Hit the Road” is at its best when simultaneously operating in two different gears. The agony of loss is offset by the raw energy of life, the specific details of Farid’s escape dovetail with the universal heartache of surrendering a child to the adult world, and the dolorous tones of a twinkling piano become roadkill for — in the words of a little boy sticking his entire upper body out of an SUV’s sunroof as it speeds across the desert flats — “BLISS!!!” You’ll know how he feels, even if that feeling crushes down on you with a weight that Simiar’s character won’t have to bear until he’s older. “Whenever you see a cockroach,” his dad puts it at one point, “remember that his parents sent him out into the world with lots of hope.”
“Hit the Road” screened at the 2021 New York Film Festival. Kino Lorber will release it in the United States in early 2022.
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