Hit the Road packs humour and heartbreak into an oddball Iranian family’s SUV

Panah Panahi’s debut feature is a stunningly assured road movie which balances emotional nuance with a bubbling undercurrent of political critique.

Hit the Road (2021)
  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

If modern Iranian cinema already has one family filmmaking dynasty established in the Makhmalbafs (father Mohsen, followed by daughters Samira and Hana), step forward a second second-generation talent. Panah Panahi, son of the infamously banned director Jafar (The White Balloon, 1995, Crimson Gold, 2003), studied cinema, worked on several of his father’s later projects and here makes his own stunning debut feature.

As the title suggests, this is a road movie, a family trip by Mom, Dad with his leg in a cast, the eerily taciturn young adult son who drives their packed SUV, his hyperactive little brother and an ailing dog in the back. We’re never explicitly told their names, where they’re going or even why, though the older brother’s marriage arrangements are vaguely cited. At first, when his parents realise their youngest has smuggled a cell phone along to play music, it seems like a mere cheeky prank – until the mother cuts up the SIM card and promptly hides the handset off-road.

There’s genuine anxiety when they think they’re being followed, though it turns out to be a motorist concerned at their vehicle leaking oil, rather than state surveillance. For all the good-natured insults and feisty bickering – the film is consistently very funny – suddenly Panahi will hold a little longer than expected on a pensive close-up, imperceptibly darkening the mood. The route gets more and more rural, mountainous, misty. Disguised bikers appear urging clandestine meetings further ahead and the mysterious purchase of a sheepskin.

Hit the Road (2021)

To reveal more would rob the film of its narrative surprises. What does need to be shared is the expert balance of knockabout humour and slowly tightening tension, intimate cramped car sequences and extended long takes against wide vistas. Impromptu karaoke scenes to Iranian pop tunes can switch from hilarious to heartbreaking in an instant.

Eventually what comes into focus is a tale of family flight and survival, sudden loss and stoic perseverance. That Panahi Jr is able to weave together slice-of-life realism with a 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired, floating-among-the-stars fantasy sequence is testament to not just his range of influences (the delicate humanism of his father is highly evident) but his ambition. He’s aided by the superb performances of his central cast, stage actors Hassan Madjooni and Pantea Panahiha as the parents and long-lashed natural Rayan Sarlak as the firecracker kid.

Criticism of his country’s authoritarian regime and the psychological toll it takes on ordinary people is implicit in every stage of the journey but achieved with the lightest of touches. For ultimately, as with much of the enduring work of his father and other recent Iranian cinema icons, from Abbas Kiarostami to Asghar Farhadi to the Makhmalbafs, these are stories both culturally specific and able to evoke universal experiences that connect beyond borders. To achieve something of comparable stature to these greats in his late-twenties, with a first film, bodes well for, one hopes, Panah Panahi’s long, rewarding, unrestricted career. In which case, it’s well worth hitching a ride right from the start.

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