Road trip comedies have always been an effective vehicle for cinema, especially for low-budget indie filmmaking. Forcing a collection of people, whether it be friends, family, or strangers, into a contained space for long stretches of time allows comedy and drama to play out in unique ways, assuming the dialogue is airtight.
A gorgeously written, confident, and assured debut by the son of famed Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, Hit the Road (2021), wipes away any thought of nepotism in its opening frames. The film feels deeply personal to the story of the Panahi family but is never weighed down by their history. This is due to the film being a comedy-focused film used to buoy not just the scenes, but also the characters who are using humour to hold the serious nature of their trip at bay.
What stands out immediately with the film is the beautifully realistic direction of a family, all with specific, nuanced dynamics that play out in an always engrossing comic drama. Panahi mines the relationships between all four characters to their emotional core with impressive brevity. So many debuts suffer from over-explaining plots or character motives that bog down strong scripts, something Panahi has seemingly mastered already.
Hit the Road operates with such economical storytelling through its extraordinary collection of performances, with a true firecracker from Rayan Sarlak as the 9-year-old brother. The way the family interact with him is a constant source of humour, with a late scene suggesting that the father gets up earlier and earlier each morning to get some time away from his manic energy.
Compositionally, the film is gorgeous and begs to be seen on the big screen. Panahi and cinematographer Amin Jafari capture both the sprawling vistas and confined car sequences with a considered lens. They allow the emotion and tension to play out in contrast in these two locations; the vistas allow the weather and distance to exude emotion, while the confined interiors of the car force us into the family trip and all of its complications.
There is an engrossing amount of ambiguity as to the situation of the family, something that is only amplified by their hesitancy to talk about it at all that is true to their dynamic. The comedy is at the forefront of the film, with Sarlak’s performance as its engine. Even in scenes where he isn’t the focus, his presence is never absent.
Panahi plays not just with what’s seen and not seen in terms of mise en scene, but also with the edges of the family’s story. There is a confidence in the piecemealing out of the family’s backstory, knowing that the strong dialogue and performances will keep the audience engaged instead of focusing purely on the mystery of their trip.
But that mystery is what heightens so many scenes. It works as the riveting narrative pull, running through the entire film, asking us why. Why is this family on a road trip? Why is the mother so concerned as to bury her 9-year-old son’s phone on the side of the road? Why is the driver so crippled with apparent anxiety as to barely speak in the first act? Panahi stretches these questions out, allowing us to peer into the window of this family’s lives and our imagination to run wild with ideas, all within the confines of their small car.
Hit the Road is one of the year’s best films, and a powerful debut to remember. It works as a political thriller, road trip comedy, and family drama all at once, with a keen eye for cinematic storytelling. With a standout cast that is sure to make a star out of Sarlak, this is a trip you don’t want to miss.
Hit the Road is in select cinemas now.