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Hit The Road Review

Hit The Road Review

‘If I don’t answer my cell, people will worry, and I have serious matters to take care of!’

This early line in Hit The Road is not spoken by a harried middle-aged businessperson, but an 8 year-old boy (Rayan Sarlak), on a mysterious road trip with his parents (Pantea Panahiha and Hassan Madjooni), older brother (Bahram Ark) and their sickly dog. The boy (the characters all remain unnamed throughout) has had his phone taken away because the family’s terrified of being followed; wherever they’re going, they’re all taking a big risk just by making the journey.

Despite the unknown and unseen perils, Hit The Road – the debut feature from Panah Panahi – is packed to the rafters with laughs. Most stem from the ebullience of little Rayan Sarlak, who’s an astonishingly self-assured, comically adept performer for one so young. Chattering away in the backseat of the packed car, talking the ear off his gruff but kindly dad, drawing on everything with arm’s reach (including the car window – in permanent marker…), he is blissfully unaware of the danger they’re all in. And in a way not dissimilar from Life is Beautiful, his family do their best to keep him shielded. There’s a lovely naturalism to all the interactions they share. This is a family that feels like a family, in all its messy, love-filled glory.

Panahi does an awe-inspiring job at keeping the divergent tones of his movie in balance, never letting one take the edge off, or overpower, another. As such, Hit the Road can be funny and scary and sad all in the same breath, all the while maintaining an aura of understatement – after all, most of the film is just a family chatting on a car journey.

Yet when we do leave the car later on, Panahi proves himself not only as a master of tone, but as an ambitious visual storyteller too. To describe these moments too much would be to reveal the narrative prematurely, but there’s one particular scene he chooses to shoot in an extra-long shot – as opposed the general mix of close-ups and medium shots – that gains huge emotional power from that directorial restraint. Another scene, that ventures slowly but spectacularly into magical realism, transports the story into another dimension altogether. Panahi’s smart, sparing deployment of these cinematic tools is continually impressive – and thrilling, for someone directing their very first movie. Just imagine where he can go from here.

There’s a sad asterix to the timing of this film’s UK release, however. Last week, Panah’s father, Jafar Panahi – director of some of Iranian cinema’s most beloved modern classics, like The Mirror, The Circle, and Offside – was sentenced to six years in prison by the Iranian government. The charges are spurious, but befitting a regime that has been targeting one of its most outspoken citizens for the majority of his public life. As the younger Panahi embarks on his own sure-to-be extraordinary career, it’s worth remembering the risks he’ll be taking every step of the way.

★★★★★

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