By Alex McPherson

A tender drama with plenty of gallows humor throughout, director Panah Panahi’s debut feature, “Hit the Road,” speaks to universal fears while slyly critiquing an oppressive political system.

The film centers around a family of four embarking on a road trip across the Iranian countryside. Farid (Amin Simiar), a withdrawn, soft-spoken 20-something, needs to leave the country for mostly ambiguous reasons. His grizzled father (Hassan Madjooni) has a broken leg and wry wit, occupying the backseat of their cramped van with Farid’s wildly energetic younger brother (Rayan Sarlak).

The little chap remains equal parts annoying and sweet — a shining beacon of optimism amidst the impending gloom of Farid’s separation. Farid’s brave, deeply worried mother (Pantea Panahiha) can barely contain her anxiety. Her momentary slides into hopelessness are alleviated by the strength of her familial bonds. There’s also a dying dog in the back of the van that the parents are trying to abandon, without telling the kid the truth about her condition. 

As the family members bicker, laugh, argue, and cry together, “Hit the Road” cements itself as one of 2022’s most confident, multifaceted, and tonally ingenious works thus far. Panahi, the son of legendary Iranian director Jafar Panahi (currently forbidden from leaving Iran himself), depicts a lovable group of characters navigating a situation which none of them are fully prepared for, illuminating complex human dynamics that are easy to relate to, no matter one’s culture.  

It’s striking how much nuanced character work Panahi packs into a 93-minute runtime. Dialogue, acting, cinematography, editing, and score combine to lend each interaction metaphysical weight. Indeed, the heaviness of their destination is counterbalanced by moments of often humorous connection — an equally powerful force that fights against the controlling hand of authority they’re quietly rebelling against.

With the parents providing deadpan commentary, music blaring on the speakers, and the youngest causing mischief, “Hit the Road” captures the group’s infectious energy to entertaining effect. Sardonic dialogue, particularly from the father, pokes fun at the absurdity of their circumstances yet never undermines the tragedy at the core of it all, even as viewers are left in the dark on the specifics. 

It’s also clear, however, that these moments of shared levity mask the adults’ grief. Panahi brilliantly illustrates this tension — the film can shift from hectic to profoundly melancholic in the blink of an eye, especially when characters are (briefly) alone with their thoughts. They frequently stare directly into the camera, a type of existential void, until jolted back into the present. 

Each of the central actors are astounding, with not a weak link among them. Simiar convincingly conveys Farid’s heightening fear and quiet suffering, his stoic facial expressions belying barely repressed sadness. Similarly, Panahiha is absolutely heartbreaking as his mother — vividly portraying her inner battle to maintain positivity while preparing to say goodbye to her eldest son.

Madjooni embodies his aging paternal figure with layered complexity, as his character struggles to disguise his concern through a veneer of gruff, amusingly deadpan masculinity. The real star of the show is Sarlak, whose imaginative personality and innocence becomes a grounding presence for the adults as they each gradually slide into depressed emptiness. Still, they can only shield him so long from the horrors of the world, and from changes that will permanently affect his life going forward.

Amin Jafari’s cinematography does a brilliant job at visualizing their descent into the unknown. The initially claustrophobic, tightly framed compositions take on additional meaning when the camera eventually zooms out during climactic moments — often framing subjects against expansive, fog-drenched mountain ranges that render them tiny specks in an intimidating environment; tiny specks, though, that are forever connected in the vast cosmos.

Although “Hit the Road” is occasionally too blunt in its symbolism, Panahi’s film expertly examines the psychological impacts of change, of leaving loved ones for an uncertain future, of the power of family bonds to keep us whole when others want to tear us apart. This is a story that needs to be told, and a directorial debut that bears the marks of a true master.

“Hit the Road” is a 2021 Iranian drama directed by Panah Panahi and starring Hassan Madjooni, Pantea Panahiha, Rayan Sarlak and
Amin Simiar. It runs 1 hour, 33 minutes and is in Persian with English subtitles, and is not rated. It opened in select theatres on April 22 and will be released on streaming July 19. Alex’s Grade: A.