Given that his father – legendary filmmaker Jafar Panahi – has spent the last 12 years under various forms of house arrest (and has just been handed a six-year actual prison sentence on trumped-up charges from the Iranian authorities), it comes as little surprise that the debut film from Panah Panahi should be so concerned with the idea of escape. On the surface, Hit the Road is a story about trying to get out of Iran, but Panahi also drills down into the kinds of cages we can build for ourselves and our loved ones out of our fears and the things we leave unsaid.
The escapee is an unnamed young man (played by Amin Simiar), who is driving to the border to be smuggled out of the country. Panahi never explains exactly why (a lot of Hit the Road’s story beats trust the audience to fill in the blanks), but the travel is clearly urgent, so the young man has brought his parents and kid brother along with him, in order to say goodbye across the drive. Though there are some early scares for the family as they worry about being tracked by the authorities, the overall stakes remain pretty low throughout, giving Panahi more time to just draw out this family’s dynamics.
The star of the show is the six-year-old little brother, who is utterly believable in his precociousness and ability to irritate. Panahi draws a remarkable performance out of child actor Rayan Sarlak, always avoiding artifice whilst still letting us see the roiling emotions that this little boy isn’t yet able to adequately express. Panahi and Sarkar make it clear that the younger brother – who hasn’t been told the real reason for this road trip – is responding to the tension and anxiety within the car without ever beating us over the head with the message, making for one of the best child performances this year.
Outside of him, though, the rest of the film is much more intermittent in its highlights. As the mother (Pantea Panahihi) and father (Hasan Majuni) wrestle with their feelings – her a bit manic, him attempting stoicism – Hit the Road goes around in circles, hitting the same beats a few too many times. The performances are strong, and the ways in which the family joke around with one another feel genuinely lived-in – in one of the funniest touches, the six-year-old has respectful nicknames for his mum and dad, but just calls his older brother ‘Mr Shithead’ – but it does end up feeling longer than its 90-minute runtime would suggest.
Panahi breaks up the naturalistic, improvisational feel of the in-car conversations (in a nice touch, the car feels more and more like a cage the closer they get to the freedom of the border) with some gorgeous shots of the Iranian countryside, which are great, and also some odd fourth-wall breaks, which are much less successful. In particular, the finale takes a wildly big swing, but it misses, leaving the film to end on a very odd note. It’s a rather fitting end to a bumpy but admirable ride that, at its best, manages to condense an entire family history into one road trip.