Hit the Road is a chaotic but tender snapshot of a family on a journey, shifting at ease between light-hearted humour and affecting drama.
Panah Panahi’s feature film directorial debut, Hit the Road, might just have one of the breakout stars of the year in Rayan Sarlak, whose performance as the little brother – he’s never named, unless you count “Monkey the Second,” as his father sometimes calls him – is one of the most irresistibly charming and liveliest child performances for many, many years. In fact, Sarlak is indicative of Hit the Road’s overarching, absorbing power: on the whole, Panahi’s film is full of energy, wit, humanity and general wackiness. And by basing much of the film around scenes which have the little brother in, the more serious narrative points are inevitably fleshed over and suppressed by the older characters, resulting in perhaps an even more devastating emotional resonance: silence is, in the case of Hit the Road at least, golden.
Hit the Road is a familial drama from the son of famous Iranian director, Jafar Panahi (The Mirror, The Circle, Taxi), and in turn replicates the works of Panah’s father as well as other Iranian directors, whilst also having a unique, experimental zing to it. Much of the film takes place inside a car rented by a four-person family: Pantea Panahiha (Breath) as the mom, Hasan Majuni (Pig) as the dad, Amin Simiar as the big brother and of course Sarlak as the youngest sibling (plus an ailing dog, named Jessy). It isn’t clear where the family are travelling to exactly, only that it will involve saying goodbye to the eldest child and whose exit from the country is secretive. There’s an underlying tension to proceedings from the off, with Simiar’s character silent for a good portion of the opening section whilst the family shenanigans go on around him. Serious words and difficult emotions are left unspoken, with the witty wisecracks and wonderfully frenzied dynamic taking precedence.
In the passenger seat for much of the journey is the mom, who tries the most to break down her eldest child’s steely exterior, only to be rebuked frequently. In the back of the car, chaos reigns: the dad, complete with a cast on his left leg, sits next to his youngest, a six-year-old with a seemingly unfaltering fountain of energy. There are wonderful moments of sharp social commentary: the mom, whilst showing a series of pictures of her eldest’s urine-stained bed as a baby, claims that, in the West, they would be displayed and viewed as art. Hit the Road is, amongst many other things, a dynamite comedy and one of the finest films of the year in this respect. Panahi’s screenplay is stuffed with a dry wit and glorious creativity and is delivered to perfection by all four members of the main cast. There’s even time for memorable cameos, such as a cyclist who claims Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal was fake news, before going on to cheat in his own race.
This childlike jubilance to proceedings makes Hit the Road hugely accessible. Panahi’s film tackles political and social subjects in Iran but in a unique way; there is a subtlety to how he forms this film, with the themes being tackled almost invisibly, leaving interpretation open to the audience. We never find out the big brother’s real reason for departing the country, only that it will be some time before his parents can contact him again and that it hinges on a secretive trafficking operation, one that involves other similarly helpless families putting their faith (and money) in masked men who ride menacingly loud bikes across the Iranian landscape. The narrative isn’t told directly through the eyes of the little brother, but with his regular presence in scenes, the other family members have to suppress feelings or allow themselves only small eruptions when he isn’t there. And when he is there, Sarlak’s feverish screams and sarcastic remarks paper over the anguish of the family with innocence. Panahi’s decision to keep things ambiguous is, quite frankly, a masterstroke. The reason behind the big brother’s need to leave the country isn’t of importance in Hit the Road: what really matters is the family, their dynamic and how they are feeling.
Panahi and DOP Amin Jafari (Ballad of a White Cow) invoke feelings of Abbas Kiarostami (Through the Olive Trees, Close-Up) – most notably Taste of Cherry (1997) – with their stylish capturing of the Iranian landscape. Long tracking shots of the family’s car against the desert and mountain ranges of the country are formidable, especially when coupled with intimate shots from the interior of the car. And when in the vehicle, the actors thrive on the vibrant script and off each other’s energies. They are all as good as each other (which is to say, they are all very, very good). Majuni gives the dad a gruff but affectionate angle, as the character who perhaps has the most amusing dynamic with the little brother. Panahiha’s mom is the glue of the family in terms of having a deeply emotional bond with all three of them, but she also delivers her sharp and terse lines of exasperation to all of them with a brilliant fluidity. And Simiar as the big brother still manages to shine, despite having noticeably fewer lines than his other co-stars, and inevitably has the biggest emotional angle to work with. On their own, they are great, but as a foursome, they sparkle. Thanks in no small part to these wonderful actors and their performances, Hit the Road is one of the most enjoyably chaotic films of the year and a true joy to experience.
Panahi may be guilty of pressing a few too many quirky buttons in Hit the Road – most notably perhaps late-on, with a scene in which Sarlak’s little brother lip syncs at the screen to an Iranian pop song – but the sheer madness of what precedes it will have you well enough prepared for this eccentricity. What comes next from Panahi is anyone’s guess in terms of his follow-up feature, but if it is half as joyous, foolish and entertaining as Hit the Road, then we are in for a treat. But make no mistake, his first feature will still grab you emotionally. Hit the Road is a film that will make you laugh, cry and ponder, all throughout the drive and long after it has reached its final destination.
Hit the Road (Jadde Khaki) was screened at the London Film Festival on 12-17 October, 2021. The film will be released theatrically in the US on April 22 (New York) / May 6 (Los Angeles) and in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on July 29, 2022.