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‘Hit the Road’ Film Review: Panah Panahi’s Stunning Debut Feature Detours Into the Unknown

The anxious uncertainty of life in exile embeds itself in a tender and tragic tale of an Iranian family’s journey

This review of “Hit the Road” was first published on April 22, 2022, after its New York City opening.

“The cockroach thinks its baby is beautiful,” says the middle-aged father to his 6-year-old.

“Are we cockroaches?” the child asks. After pausing, the father replies, “We are now.”

This exchange, playful on the surface, but heavy with quiet grief, occurs late in “Hit The Road,” the stunning debut feature written and directed by Panahi about a troubled road trip, one involving a young man fleeing Iran for an uncertain future. He’s referred to frequently as a “traveler,” but there’s more to it than that.

The young man is Farid (Amin Simiar). He’s driving to a meeting spot, where masked guides on motorcycles are meant to smuggle him into Turkey. Along for the ride are his mother (Pantea Panahiha), father (Hassan Majooni) and young brother (Rayan Sarlak).

There’s been a summons, bail that cost his parents their house, and a reference to an unknown illicit act, one that Farid’s father has caught him doing more than once. They’ve abandoned their phones’ SIM cards, paying close attention to cars that might be following them. But inside the SUV are more obstacles: Their dog is dying in the back; the little brother is loud, precocious and almost unbearably energetic; Mom is, understandably, emotionally distraught; Dad’s got a broken leg in a cast. They’re hobbled, but they keep rolling in a nervous trajectory north to the border.

This sort of trouble is a subject the filmmaker knows very well, having grown up the son of acclaimed and embattled director Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon,” “The Circle”). The elder Panahi’s difficulties with the Iranian government are well-documented, involving years of house arrest and a ban on making movies, limitations he’s managed to work around at no small risk.

The similarities between real life and this fictional tale end there, of course. Whatever trouble Farid is in is frightening enough for the family to rally around and plan for his escape. And though the ambient weight of that fear is an always menacing, silent presence, Panahi’s script skillfully punctures the gloom with a hectic, high volume, cross-talking gallows humor that the entire family — barely controllable and borderline-wild 6-year-old included — engages in as a means of solidarity. Only Farid himself, the ostensible center of the crisis, remains silent. He speaks briefly, when prodded, keeping his eyes on the road and a perpetually stricken expression on his face.

Along the way they encounter a cyclist whose devotion to his personal idol Lance Armstrong is dismantled with an almost devious glee by the father. There are several conversations about how to dispose of the dog. There’s talk about a lake once used for swimming now turned to dust. There are arguments about directions, whether or not they’re being followed and by whom, and how to make the little brother shut up. At one roadside pause, a stranger asks the father about his broken leg. His response: “I fell down… from grace.”

And when the chattering, bickering dust settles back in the car there are soothing sing-alongs to vintage Iranian pop songs (“This too shall pass… make peace… spring will blossom again and drown us in flowers…”) and discussions of movies. Farid’s favorite is Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” because “it calms you down.”

Panahi and cinematographer Amin Jafari take familiar tropes of contemporary Iranian cinema and rework them with refreshing twists. Interiors of cars juxtaposed against landscape are something of an informal tradition from filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami to the elder Panahi, with whom Jafari worked as director of photography on his 2018 feature “3 Faces.”

Here, the SUV is a transitional space between family devotion and the cold, unfeeling threats of the outside world. Long, wide shots of what would, in other films, be climactic, wrenching moments, swallow up unbearable emotional chaos and spit out specks in the distance accompanied by muted shouts and cries. When the frame has no room for anything more than a somber close-up, the result is a repeated refrain of fraught, heavyweight stares directly into the lens.

Panahi and Jafari’s visually lyrical touches, taken cumulatively, have the effect of a signature in the making. There are tear-streaked, fourth-wall-breaking, lip-synced musical moments. There’s an encroaching fog that might contain help or horror; the motorcycle guides’ sheepskin masks look like something out of “The Strangers.” And then a return to Kubrick, in shots that slyly take hold of seemingly ordinary moments, turning them simultaneously fantastical and heartbreaking.

At the heart of this story is a desperation inherent in the recent surge of films about people who have to leave and cross borders, Heidi Ewing’s “I Carry You With Me,” Fernando Frias’ “I’m No Longer Here” and the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Flee,” from filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen, among them. They’re films that interrogate assumptions about which people, from which country, under what circumstances, are allowed to live a life free from deprivation or war or persecution.

Here, a family separating from an adult son, which under other auspices would be an everyday rite of passage into adulthood — the father, reflexively, jokes, “The cockroach’s parents sent him out in the world with lots of hope” — becomes both an act of tender devotion and a fearful launch into space.

“Hit the Road” opens Friday in Los Angeles and San Diego after opening April 22 in New York City.

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