You are dropped into the middle of a journey. It’s unclear where exactly you’re going, at least at first. Still, a few early signposts suggest possible destinations: precocious-kid comedy, existential-crisis drama, Ransom of Red Chief-type ironyfest, paranoid thriller, regional road-to-nowhere allegory. You start to pick up that it’s a family you’re traveling with, a foursome who fit easily into familiar slots. Dad (Hasan Mujuni) is cranky, bearded, partially crippled by having his leg in a cast. Mom (Pantea Panahiha) is fretful, slightly fussy, extremely nurturing — possibly, it’s hinted, to a fault. Their oldest son (Amin Simiar) is in his early twenties, quiet and a little bookish; he’s the one driving the car. Their youngest (Rayan Sarlak) is somewhere between the ages of six to eight, and is a cross between Home Alone-era Macaulay Culkin and the Tasmanian Devil. A stray dog they’ve picked up, Jessy, is napping in the back.
Their affectionate banter and a few impromptu sing-alongs to old musical numbers give the impression that we’re riding shotgun on a relaxing, family-bonding getaway. A contraband cellphone, quickly confiscated by Mom and buried at the foot of some mountains by the side of a highway, suggests something else is behind this trip. Ditto a sense that someone may be following them. Not far along into the drive, the older brother erupts over his parents “trying to have a last-gasp party.” Worried glances are exchanged. The boy seems especially concerned. “In movies, when they say ‘last-gasp,'” he exclaims, “they mean something bad.” The kid’s not quite 100-percent on the money. But he’s not completely off the mark, either.
There’s more than one voyage happening with these domestic road warriors, in other words, and part of the joy of Hit the Road is submitting semi-blindly to wherever it takes you. (It opened in New York/L.A. on April 22nd, and goes nationwide today.) The debut film by Panaha Panahi — son of legendary Iranian director/political martyr Jafar Panahi, a man so determined to make movies despite a government ban that he shot a feature under house arrest and smuggled the result out in a birthday cake — displays an almost perverse sense of pride in doling information in drips, snippets, superficially casual asides that turn out to be deep with meaning. What we eventually learn is that one of these travelers has to leave not just the family behind, but the country as well. It’s never explained why, or even how this will be accomplished, but an exit has been guaranteed and arranged. Given Panaha’s real-life proximity to what happens when speaking up and speaking out angers the powers that be, it isn’t hard to guess what he’s getting at by making exile the end of road for this group. Yet the particulars aren’t important. Gone is gone is gone. Parting is such sweet sorrow, even when you cackling at a six-year-old boy acting as a one-little-man wrecking crew or chuckling over a married couple’s Bickersons-ish double act.
Yet once you’ve seen this deft blend of genres and tones, all of the inspired laughter and the lumping of throats, you see exactly how Hit the Road fits all of its elements together with remarkable seamlessness. It helps that the movie balances a sense of grace and gravitas without sacrificing either, while demonstrating the younger Panahi’s talent for knowing exactly how to compose within a frame; Jacques Tati would be proud at the way visual gags involving a cyclist riding next to the car and a runaway plastic chair are set up then impeccably detonated. You wouldn’t know it was a first film. There’s a mastery at work here that’d make you think he’s been crafting stories like this through sound and vision for ages, and in a way that doesn’t make you immediately think of pedigree. Panaha has admitted that being the son of a world-class world cinema filmmaker was his biggest self-imposed stumbling block in terms of finally becoming a writer-director. This singular, surprisingly breezy but wholly substantial look at what happens when the need to leave by any means necessary trumps everything, and the void experienced by those left behind, kills doubts as to whether he’d be coasting on someone else’s coattails. One film in, and he’s already staked his claim.
And though it’s easy to see both what is influencing Hit the Road‘s sensibility, notably Iranian cinema’s longstanding love of car rides and children as narrative devices, and how certain storytelling expectations are purposefully being thwarted here, there’s a gentle yet firm flow to this family’s journey that allows the movie to do a lot — it can let the resident wild-and-crazy tyke wreak havoc and pause for a lyrical long shot of a motorcycle rider speeding in and out of a fogbank without missing a beat. (All of the performances are extraordinary here, and while it’s tempting to single out Rayan Sarlak for his high-energy sound and fury, it’s Pantea Panahiha you want to especially pay attention to. Her less showy turn not only fuels this film’s undercurrent of pathos, it also slowly evolves into one of the great maternal movie performances of 21st century.)
The question as to what kind of movie this will end up being based on your first impressions ends up being a tricky one; before it’s climactic fade-out happens, Hit the Road somehow manages to check all of those genre boxes mentioned in the opening graf. But it is, at heart, a road movie. For this family hurtling forward to parts unknown, the final destination is a farewell. For audiences — particularly those of us who still believe in the movies, and their power to open eyes and touch hearts and break down cultural barriers and find common humanistic ground — the last stop is bliss.