A family goes on a road trip with a difference in Hit The Road, a promising first feature from Panah Panahi, which showed in the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight section. The son of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi delivers a lean but affecting drama with a winning humorous streak.
When we meet the unnamed mother (Pantea Panahiha) and father (Hassan Madjooni), they are traveling into rugged landscape with their two sons. Their eldest (Amin Simiar), a grown man, appears preoccupied. Their youngest is played by Rayan Sarlak, who was six at the time of filming and is a magnetic performer — Hit The Road’s greatest comic weapon. A lively, borderline hyperactive kid with a precocious way with words, he indulges in witty banter with his parents, in particular his father, who uses humor to distract and protect him from mysterious adult matters.
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It becomes clear to the audience that the trip has a serious, possibly dangerous purpose involving the elder brother. This is something that visibly concerns the mother, who often looks pensive and also gently chides her son about his smoking habit, perhaps channeling her anxiety into more controllable matters than the one facing them.
As they approach a border, the unspoken tension rises, but it’s frequently punctuated by winning observational humor as well as heart. This is a portrait of a loving family who care deeply about each other. Panahi captures every little detail that demonstrates this, from the mother’s protectiveness to the father’s distraction tactics. Rather unusually for a realist drama, both parents engage in conversations about genre films with their sons. The mother is curious to know which movie is her elder’s favorite — it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he says calms him down. His brother goes for the opposite effect — stimulating superhero movies.
When a man approaches the car with his head covered in a sack, he’s quick to reference the Scarecrow from The Dark Knight films. His father runs with this, and makes soothing promises related to his love of Batman. Later, the pair share a beautiful scene that recalls the mood of 2001; the father lying on the ground staring at the stars in what looks like a space suit. Pop music references also pepper the film, as the family sing and dance to Iranian music. These aren’t just here to perk up the pace: the director says they were sung by artists who had to flee abroad after the revolution.
Another star of the film is a small dog called Jessy, who has also injured his leg. Unlike his owner, this isn’t a condition he will be able to live with for long, but Dad has given him a stay of execution so that his young son can spend time with his pet on the road. This lends the scenes between boy and dog a heartbreaking quality, and it’s easy to make parallels with another impending loss the family is facing. Hit The Road is a small but beautiful film, and a terrific calling card for Panahi Jr.