Hit the Road, from writer/director Panah Panahi (son of famed Iranian New Waver Jafar Panahi), is a sharp and endearing portrait of a family painted through a series of road trip conversations—often veiled, openly lying, or disguised by ballbusting humor. Panahi’s been in the film world for a while, making shorts and editing his father’s 3 Faces alongside Mastaneh Mohajer, but he’s decided to use a familiar on-ramp for his feature debut. Where the road trip of American cinema has lodged itself in the symbolic vehicles of the family-friendly SUV, the countercultural Harley and the crappy teen-romp van—as dedicated to our highway system and manifest destiny wanderlust as the machines themselves—Iran’s take on the subgenre has often been less about the destination than all that’s left in the rearview. Hit the Road plays with that deconstruction by keeping its trip’s purpose vague and focusing on the intimate details of those undertaking it. With emotional honesty and plenty of panache, Panahi’s journey floors it out from under his father’s shadow.
The filmmaker’s detail-driven ensemble includes a car karaoke queen mother (Pantea Panahiha), broken-legged father (Hasan Majuni), quiet driver son (Amin Simiar) and his scene-stealing fireball of a little brother (Rayan Sarlak). Their cute puppy holds them all together with his constant need for pee breaks. Together, they traverse dry and rural roads, fulfilling checkpoints for a mysterious quest that becomes clearer and clearer as they go. There’s something amiss, but something that feels natural rebelling against. Expected. Mandatory, even. Sometimes in Iran, the movie’s flippancy seems to say, such is life. Panahi has seen his share of arrests and indictments for flaunting immoral laws; when he was 26, he was visiting Tehran’s Evin Prison, where his father was being held for making “propaganda” against the regime.
Hit the Road’s similarly middle-fingered politics are conveyed as effortlessly as the personalities of its middle-fingered characters, with tension unfolding easily throughout a script that dwells as much on its lived-in conversational rhythms as its stark landscapes. The film’s shot as a series of squished togethernesses and nervous separations, all breathing in and out like the natural progression of life—or a long road trip. Sarlak’s manic little six-year-old squirt often pays his respects to the picturesque horizon, but every long and loving verbal sparring match between family members contains just as much affecting reverence.
It’s this adoration for closeness of all kinds—and the confident trust it takes to simply sit and shoot your cast’s rambling, affectionate obscenities for long, long takes—that makes Hit the Road’s bittersweetness work so well. Shallow yet targeted barbs reflect the tightness of these familial ties, amply and expertly deployed throughout this talky movie. Rarely has “shithead” felt like an endearment. The naturalistic deliveries, shouted over kid rants and dog barks, or muttered underneath a similar stream of sonic debris, only make the emotional core of the family unit seem stronger.
When Sarlak’s hilarious antics (he needs to get his contraband cell phone back because of all the people who constantly want to chat with him, a child) and his parents’ deadpanned one-liners give way to fears about loss and separation, these instantly relatable modes of connective chatter become coping mechanisms and then reverse course, sometimes in a matter of seconds. Panahiha is particularly potent at this teasing game of emotional chicken, letting it all play out on her face—while singing her heart out, no less. For his part, the incredible Sarlak gets a musical moment as show-stopping as Mads Mikkelsen’s Another Round finale in 2019. Child actors don’t usually do more than endear or infuriate, but Sarlak is Panahi’s secret weapon; a singular ball of precocious electricity that’s more like Cowboy Bebop’s rambunctious Ed than most live-action performances, this kid has it all.
Really, so does Hit the Road. It’s a warm and realistic comedy, but one with flashes of the fantastic. Anyone can be a punchline, but nobody’s ever the butt of the joke. There’s too much love at hand. It’s a paranoid and politically-minded drama, but one where even a child’s goofy babblings about the Batmobile can inspire transcendent moments of beauty. It’s as complex and contradictory as any family. Sure, something’s on their tail and the dusty trail lies endlessly ahead, but those narrative bookends always take a backseat to the here and now. The road trip always has to end, but the excellent Hit the Road introduces an exciting filmmaker whose journey is just beginning.
Director: Panah Panahi
Writers: Panah Panahi
Stars: Pantea Panahiha, Hasan Majuni, Rayan Sarlak, Amin Simiar
Release Date: April 22, 2022
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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