Parked in a dusty layby, a father and his young son squabble playfully over a cell phone in the languid, sun-baked opening moments of Iranian director Panah Panahi’s striking debut. The family dog sits in the back of their SUV; the eldest son remains quiet behind the wheel. Mum sits next to him, weighed down by something or other. This is our entry point to a road trip movie with an aching heart and a slow accretion of revelations ahead of it – a drama that leaves the dramatics for later and is all the more powerful for it.
For anyone who has spent hours cooped up in a car with their family – which is all of us – even Hit the Road’s slower stretches will have a wry relatability. The radio is fiddled with; songs are sung; pit stops are made; and dad (Hassan Madjooni), who has a never-explained broken leg, nearly gets another one trying to retrieve a crumpled can from the highway. It’s like Little Miss Sunshine in a 30mph zone.
But Hit the Road will eventually reveal why that phone must remain in dad’s iron grip, and why both the family’s pet pooch and its sullen elder son (Amin Simiar) are so muted – and none of those reasons are good. Somewhere buried deep within Hit the Road is a critique of Iranian society that suggests Panahi is a chip off the old block – his dad, Jafar Panahi (‘The White Balloon’), remains under house arrest in Iran, supposedly for making ‘propaganda’ against the state – while the Abbas Kiarostami’s self-reflexive studies of life in the country (often set in cars) find an echo here, too.
But the younger Panahi has his own voice – and a gift for wry humour. A tangle with a cyclist mid-race sees the biker hitching a ride for a few miles, sharing his admiration for Lance Armstrong as they drive past his rivals. But Armstrong was a cheat, dad tells the crestfallen man, who tries valiantly to defend his disgraced American hero. A moment later he’s hopping out and resuming the race at the head of the field, the irony completely lost on him. Dad, meanwhile, is loving every moment.
But the mood shifts as a sadness seeps through the later stretches of the film. Pahani’s goal is to get the audience as close as possible to the family and its burden, and he achieves it via long, lulling takes and fourth-wall-breaking looks into – or, maybe, through – the camera. Beyond the bickering and jokes, they seem to be asking: how could you not be moved by what we’re going through?
The acting is note perfect across the board: six-year-old Rayan Sarlak is an effervescent explosion of rascally energy, while Madjooni is funny, laconic and pissed-off – often all at once. Of the four leads, only Pantea Panahiha – the mother – has a significant body of screen work behind her, but you’d never know. You’d never know that the director is a first-timer either. Together they’ve created something completely fresh with the skill of veterans.
In UK cinemas Jul 29.