“Hit the Road” opens at the Film Forum

“Hit the Road” is a riotously funny family comedy tinged with the sadness of the political oppression endured by the people of Iran.

Four people and a dog are driving in a rented SUV through a flat stretch of Iranian highway. The father (Hassan Madjooni) sits in the back, left leg in a cast. His child (Rayan Sarlak) is driving him crazy with his manic energy. His wife (Pantea Panahiha) sits in the front passenger seat, calmly chiding him for his grumpy cynicism. The much quieter older son (Amin Simiar) is driving the car. And the dog is in the back. 

Like any good road movie (and this is a great road movie!), laughter emerges as the characters provoke and entertain each other, run into strangers along the way, have car troubles and suffer other impediments to their journey.

“Hit the Road” is the first feature directed by Iranian film director Panah Panahi, who is the son of celebrated filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Jafar has been banned by Iran from making films for many years because of his criticism of the government and Iran’s crackdown on dissent seems to be the reason for the journey though it’s never explicitly stated. All we know is that the couple had to sell both their house and their car to pay the bail to get their older son out of jail and now they are taking him to the border to pay smugglers to get him out of the country. The mother hides this from her younger son, telling him her older brother is getting married. “Who would marry him?” the anarchic little boy asks. They also don’t tell him their rescued dog may die soon.

Panahi had great teachers (both his father and his father’s teacher, the great Abbas Kiarostami) and there are sight gags here worthy of the silent film comedy masters. For example, during a stop at a restaurant, the father is puzzled when he sees a plastic chair moving by itself in the distance. We later see the chair is being pulled by the dog. The mother screams at her young son, “You leashed the dog to a disposable chair!” And remember–the little boy doesn’t know the dog is sick.

There are many great sequences in “Hit The Road” like this that brilliantly combine verbal and visual humor with deep emotional undertones. In one wide vista shot held for several minutes, the mother runs back and forth between the car and motorcyclist taking her boy away as the father, on crutches, watches helplessly. Meanwhile, they have tied the little boy to a tree as if he were a Tasmanian devil to keep him from interfering with the fragile transaction! (The film has made 8-year-old Rayan Sarlak an instant star.)

In the last act of the film, as they camp out with many others on a mountain who are trying to get relatives across the border, the tone becomes more somber as they contemplate never seeing the older brother again. The night landscape, lit by the fires of the campers on a cloudless night, is radiantly beautiful. The little boy lies on his father, who is sleeping in a silver camping blanket. As they tell stories and make each other laugh, Panahi has the stars above dissolve into them as they seem to float upwards. (Earlier in the film the older son says his favorite film is “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

Hassan Madjooni and Amin Simiar in “Hit The Road”

As good as the script and movie making is, it wouldn’t be so triumphal if Panahi hadn’t cast the leads with such talented actors, especially the ones who play the parents, Madjooni and Panahiha. The verbal bickering between them and their sons, even caustic at times (“I’ll smash your head if you kiss the ground again!”), never sours the deep love and concern the four show for each other. 

We don’t know what will become of this family after the story ends. But like the father says to his older son as they eat apples as they rest by a stream, “Whenever you see a cockroach, remember that his parents sent him out into the world with lots of hope.”

“Hit The Road” opens Friday, April 22 at the Film Forum in NYC.

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