- Director: Panah Panahi
- Writers: Panah Panahi
- Stars: Pantea Panahiha, Hasan Majuni, Rayan Sarlak, Amin Simiar
- Release Date: April 22, 2022
Hit the Road Trailer
Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road (written and directed by his father, the legendary 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—and is a sharp and endearing portrait of a family. In addition to making short films and editing his father’s 3 Faces with Mastaneh Mohajer, Panahi has been working in the film industry for quite some time, and he’s decided to take a familiar route for his feature debut. Whereas 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—all of which are as dedicated to our highway system and manifest destiny wanderlust as the machines themselves—take Iran’s on the subgenre has often been less about the destination than about what’s left in the rearview mirror. The Iranian road trip has often been less about the destination than about what’s left in the rearview mirror. With its ambiguous trip’s purpose and a focus on the intimate details of those who are taking part in it, Hit the Road plays with the deconstruction of the narrative. When Panahi’s journey out from under the shadow of his father is told with emotional honesty and panache, it is a treat to watch.
Among the filmmaker’s meticulously crafted ensemble is a mother who sings in her car (Pantea Panahiha), a father who is crippled by a broken leg (Hasan Majuni), a quiet driver’s son (Amin Simiar), and his scene-stealing little brother (Amin Simiar) (Rayan Sarlak). Their adorable puppy, who is constantly in need of a bathroom break, keeps them all together. They travel together through dry and rural terrain, stopping at checkpoints along the way to complete a mysterious quest that becomes more and more clear as time passes. There’s something wrong, but it’s something that feels natural to be rebelling against in this situation. Expected. Even mandatory in some cases. The film’s flippancy appears to be saying that this is just how life is in Iran at times. In addition to being arrested and indicted for flouting immoral laws, Panahi was detained and indicted when he was 26 years old while visiting his father in Tehran’s Evin Prison, where he was being held on charges of “propaganda against the regime.”
A script that focuses as much on its lived-in conversational rhythms as it does on its stark landscapes, Hit the Road’s similarly middle-fingered politics are conveyed with the same effortlessness as the personalities of its middle-fingered characters, with tension building effortlessly throughout the script. In the film, a series of squished togethernesses and nervous separations are depicted, with each scene breathing in and out as if it were the natural progression of life—or a long car journey. Despite the fact that Sarlak’s rambunctious 6-year-old squirt frequently pays his respects to the picturesque horizon, every long and loving verbal sparring match between family members contains just as much affecting reverence.
That adoration for all forms of intimacy—as well as the confident trust required to simply sit and shoot your cast’s rambling, affectionate obscenities for long, long takes—is what makes Hit the Road’s bittersweetness so effective. The closeness of these familial ties is reflected in the shallow but precise barbs that are abundantly and expertly deployed throughout this talky film. It’s been a long time since the term “shithead” felt like a compliment. The naturalistic deliveries, which are shouted over the screams of children and the barking of dogs, or muttered beneath a similar stream of sonic debris, only serve to reinforce the emotional core of the family unit.
The instantly relatable modes of connective chatter of Sarlak’s hilarious antics (he needs to get his contraband cell phone back because of all the people who want to talk to him, a child) and his parents’ deadpanned one-liners give way to fears of loss and separation, and these instantly relatable modes of connective chatter reverse course, sometimes in a matter of seconds. While playing this teasing game of emotional chicken, Panahiha is particularly effective, allowing it all to play out on her face—while also singing her heart out, no less. Likewise, the incredible Sarlak will be treated to a musical moment that is as jaw-dropping as Mads Mikkelsen’s Another Round conclusion in 2019. When it comes to child actors, they usually don’t do much more than endear or enrage, but Sarlak is Panahi’s secret weapon. A singular ball of precocious electricity who resembles Cowboy Bebop’s rambunctious Ed rather than the majority of live-action performances, this kid has it all.
Hit the Road, on the other hand, does. It’s a warm and realistic comedy with a few flashes of the fantastic thrown in for good measure. Anyone can be the punchline of a joke, but no one is ever the brunt of the punchline. There’s way too much love in the air right now. Despite the fact that it is a paranoid and politically-minded drama, it contains transcendent moments of beauty, including a child’s goofy babblings about the Batmobile. It’s every bit as complicated and contradictory as any other family. Sure, something is on their trail, and the dusty trail ahead appears to stretch forever, but those narrative bookends are always pushed aside in favor of the present moment. It’s inevitable that a road trip will come to an end, but the excellent Hit the Road introduces us to an exciting filmmaker whose journey is only just getting started.