Hit the Road, 2021.
Directed by Panah Panahi.
Starring Hasan Majuni, Pantea Panahiha, Rayan Sarlak and Amin Simiar.
A family travels on a mysterious road trip across the Iranian landscape.
One of the great joys in cinema is a properly exciting child actor. Often, kids on the big screen can be wooden or a little bewildered, but occasionally a casting director manages to locate the perfect mix of confidence, precociousness and naturalism. That’s certainly the case for Hit the Road, which is a somewhat meandering drama given a dose of rocket fuel up the backside by the luminous presence of six-year-old Rayan Sarlak. He’s an absolute force of comic and emotional energy, powering the film forward.
As the title suggests, this is a road movie, following a family as they journey across the Iranian countryside as part of an initially unclear service to their older son (Amin Simiar). The boys’ father (Hasan Majuni) is behind the wheel, while his wife (Pantea Panahiha) seems paranoid that they might be being followed. On the way to their destination, they are frequently forced to stop and interact with various groups of people, as if they might actually be on a Sisyphean, purgatorial quest with no end point in sight.
Hit the Road is a strange movie, helmed by first time writer-director Panah Panahi with a sense of enjoyable aimlessness. It won the prize for Best Film at the London Film Festival and it’s easy to see why the jury were charmed by it. When it foregrounds the gentle bickering of the family – and specifically Sarlak’s firecracker comic talent – the movie is a delight to experience, but it struggles somewhat when the furniture of plot has to creep in.
Panahi is clearly in love with cinema and with the opportunities the medium offers to him. An extended riff about the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey pays off later on with a scene in which the camera zooms away from the father and son as they are framed by a blanket of stars, in a clear visual nod to the Star Child at the conclusion of Kubrick’s sci-fi classic. It’s one of a few nice visual flourishes in the film, which seems to gradually move the camera further from the characters as the story goes on, from cramped early sequences within the car to a climactic scene in which the camera has to fly across a desert vista as if searching for the characters. It’s as if these people are becoming increasingly separate from their previous lives.
But it’s Sarlak who really sits at the heart of the movie. Whether he’s asking perceptive little questions or ranting about his parents taking his phone away, he keeps the comedic beat thrumming, while the adult performances shoulder the palpable undercurrent of sadness which runs beneath all of the lightness and smartly-written family squabbles. Panahi never really lets that sadness boil over in the way that it should, relying mostly on a piano motif to signal that it’s present.
Hit the Road is a mixed bag, which remains a little too low-key to ever fully ignite the potential of its story and the colourful characters Panahi has created. Its character arcs feel a little unfinished, which leaves the emotional pay-offs of the third act lacking in the impact they probably ought to have. But, in the shape of its six-year-old star, the film has uncovered a diamond. If there’s any justice, we’ll be seeing him take the stage at the Oscars one day.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.