SFFILM FEST 2022 REVIEW! An astounding feature debut from Iranian writer-director Panah Panahi, the road trip drama Hit the Road brims with the confidence of a stalwart filmmaker. His dialogue is so sharp you could slice steel with it. The rising tension reaches a beautiful and traumatic apotheosis. The comedic and dramatic timing is impeccable. But what cuts deepest is the warmth of the film’s central family. This is a triumph on every conceivable level, announcing the arrival of a prodigious talent.
The deceptively simple plot follows a dysfunctional family on what initially seems like just another road trip. The dad (Hasan Majuni) sports a thick cast on his broken leg, covered in his hyperactive son’s (Rayan Sarlak) doodles. The mom (Pantea Panahiha) seems to be withholding a plethora of emotions underneath all the smiles and singing. And then there’s the older brother (Amin Simiar), around whom the story revolves. Lest we forget, there’s also a dog, barely ever seen or heard.
A prolonged shot of the father’s worried face early on in the narrative suggests that this is more than a fun family outing. “We’re being followed,” the mother states abruptly. “Don’t go,” she later pleads with the older son. The filmmaker is in no rush to unravel the family’s ultimate goal, nor is it the point – the circumstances that pressured the family into making a tough decision, as well as how they deal with it, form the beating heart of the film.
A thriller it’s not, at least not in a conventional sense. One could call Hit the Road a penetrating study of family dynamics. There’s an abundance of humor that’s masking a tragic truth. Each scene is handled with precision. The young Rayan Sarlak gets most of the laughs, refusing to give up his cellphone until his parents threaten to throw him out of the car, or informing his father about his relationship status: “We worked out all the details. We’re getting married.”
“…refusing to give up his cellphone until his parents threaten to throw him out of the car…”
As the true, hidden reason behind their trip becomes more apparent, the humor gains an undercurrent of pathos. Mom sings along to a tune while looking at her older son, and the rest of the family joins joyfully until, with the snap of a finger, a somberness descends upon them. The film takes some detours, sometimes wise, sometimes engagingly quirky (an injured biker’s love of Lance Armstrong, and the father’s retort, may be one of the funniest scenes of the year). It all leads towards the inevitable: the last searing moments that distress and inspire.
Large portions of the film take place within the claustrophobic confines of a car. Panahi and his cinematographer Amin Jafari judiciously let the actors do the heavy lifting before they allow for breaths of fresh air, the camera breaking out of the vehicles’ confines to display visions of desolate, staggering beauty. “Looks like pistachios!” the boy exclaims, pointing at stunning, hilly dunes, which more accurately resemble the large scales of a giant, mythical creature. The entire dialogue-driven narrative is set against epic, all-encompassing vistas, perhaps best exemplified in the image of the brothers playing in a vast desert.
Countless such images remain in your mind long after the credits roll. A biker appears, then disappears back into milk-white, distant fog. The mother enjoys the rustling of a tree’s yellowed leaves. A father-son converse while eating an apple by a river. The heart-shredding denouement, filmed in one take, against a pale white sun. Mere words barely do justice to the magic the director has crafted here.
Hit the Road is a gut-punch of a film, strikingly gorgeous, as tender as a mother’s touch, as uncompromising as an aggrieved father. Panahi is acutely, painfully aware of the infinite nuances of family, how humans interact, and how to slow down the pace for things to sink in, or simply take a breather, or even sing a song. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year.
"…a gut-punch of a film, strikingly gorgeous..."