Like father, like son; Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road creates a self-reflexive study on life in his country by means of a family road trip that has different twists and turns emotionally. On the first watch, it is gripping; on the second, it completely breaks your heart.
The film follows a tender disordered family of four — two middle-aged parents and their two sons: a hyperactive 6-year-old and an untalkative adult — who drive across the Iranian landscape. We are never told what their exact destination is; they just keep on driving. Dad has a broken leg for an unknown reason, while mom tries to laugh to hold the tears away. The two brothers are opposites. One remains quiet while the other, the much younger one, is very jumpy. As the trip continues, we get to know the reasons for it all, but it is the way it is built through its short 93-minute runtime that makes the story so enthralling.
Panah Panahi wants, first and foremost, to connect with this family. To spend as much time with them as he can through family quirks that all of us can associate with. That’s how he introduces his film, a straightforward and quick “everybody, get in the car” moment with a smooth yet somber piano score in the background. When they are driving around, they do what most families do: banter. However, the movie changes its tone and atmosphere as they do pit stops. In each of these stops, we are given hints of the purpose of their trip. It is similar to Faris and Dayton’s Little Miss Sunshine (2006), except it feels more realistic.
With a combination of wry wit and intimate sorrow, the film starts to take us into a territory where we don’t know how to react. Whether we should laugh at the jokes or feel saddened by what is unfolding. The way Panah writes is remarkable. The simplistic moments capture so much energy, and it has the necessary dialogue; it doesn’t feel overstuffed nor too talkative that it takes us off this soul-stirring gallivant. There are always moments when we all smile through the pain; it’s more like a kind of mask we put on, so we don’t seem too vulnerable in front of the people we love.
The last two scenes evidently describe that feeling with karaoke sessions that render the hardest of moments– the toughest of pains– with tranquility. Sometimes, the camera just stays in front of a character, and you can see their moods swing in a matter of seconds. On occasions, the camera sits still, encapsulating the beauty of the Iranian plains. Those motionless junctures tell the whole story. Panahi polishes his film genuinely and honestly; you could argue that it is almost documentary-esque.
In the end, Hit the Road does both; it makes you laugh with its witty moments and causes you to weep at the harsh reality the family lives in. It doesn’t feel like a debut feature; it seems like a film forged from the hand of a doyen or a virtuoso. Panah learned the best techniques from his father, Jafar Panahi (Taxi, 3 Faces), and managed to shape a voice of his own. It is not perfect, but it is a strong premiere from a fascinating filmmaker on the rise—one who follows in his father’s path.