Hit The Road has just won the London Film Festival 2021 award for Best Film, and I can’t recommend a more deserving feature. How can one sum up this film? Is it a tragi-comedy, a drama, a farce? An Iranian buddy road movie with a wild child, an ailing dog, a wayward young adult, and two diametrically opposed parents, it’ll have you speechless one minute and laughing the next. And little Rayan Sarlak absolutely steals the show.
Hit The Road
Director: Panah Panahi
Release date: October 13, 2021 (LFF)
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Hit The Road is one of those rare accomplishments that doesn’t feel like a directorial debut. Produced by Iranian director Panah Panahi, it stars starring Pantea Panahiha as the mother, Hasan Majuni as the father, Amin Simiar as the older brother and Rayan Sarlak as the utterly outrageous but charming younger brother. A lot of the narrative leaves the viewer to guess what’s happening, piecing together clues from snippets of dialogue on the road and the characters’ terse body language. It seems we’re as much on the road to nowhere as we are a destination: it’s a very ambiguous narrative in which the older brother is due to undertake a long, possibly dangerous and life-altering journey, but we’re given very few specifics. I wonder if this is a conscious decision, with director Panahi deciding to let us work it out for ourselves.
The family dynamic doesn’t suffer from a cinematic gloss and, as a result, we see the chaos of their family life played out in the claustrophobic environment of the car. It’s as playful as it is tense; funny, warm and humorous as it is laced with the anxiety of preparing to say goodbye to a member of the family. As any parent who’s experienced a child growing up and leaving the nest will understand, it’s a necessary but bittersweet coming-of-age ritual.
Hit The Road is a warm, empathetic film that is in turns hilariously, unbearably funny, and in the next moment, stone-cold sober, a sense of dread and foreboding permeating the laughter. A vocal father whose leg is apparently broken (and in a cast) allows his wife, a stolid woman to literally serve him hand and foot. She is on the edge of a nervous breakdown with her precociously wayward child and an older son who, by contrast, is mysteriously laconic. Their journey is one of frayed nerves, fraught conversations, and you get the impression she’s in desperate need of an aspirin and a quiet, dark room to sit down in.
Despite its migraine-inducing hysteria at times (not in a bad way – it was funny and a relief to see such a normal family dynamic), the film also has its tender moments. Hobbling on crutches, the father goes to talk with his son one last time before he departs, the two sharing worldly wisdom and an apple along the banks of a river. The elder son may protest that he’s an adult, he doesn’t need supervision, but in this moment he becomes adolescent, childlike again, sharing a moment. There is a faint sense of the embarrassment of the moment, with the son not wishing to show emotions in front of his father, but it’s clear to see that the two have a friendship and it’s not going to be easy to break it.
Parts of this film feel wildly unpredictable. During one scene, the family hits and injures a competitive cyclist on the road. Despite protestations that they should continue their journey unhindered, the kindly older brother stops the car. A minute and a jump-cut later, the stranger is seated, cramped against the window and the father’s cast in the back seat. He may be cycling, but his BA in Sociology has given him strong opinions about the world, the nature of power and authority, and the moral imperative people have in the world. There follows an unusually philosophical discussion where he parries with the father, his idealist nature conflicting with the stoic pragmatism who has lived two of his lifetimes and has much more cemented, concrete ideas. One thing they can agree on, though, is that this family life is transient and must be enjoyed, for all its flaws, while it lasts.
Another important player in the cast is the dog, Jessy. She’s a stray, but in a moment of weakness the father couldn’t bear to abandon her on the street and decides to bring her home. The youngest son is predictably enchanted by her and treats her as his best playmate, while the mother frets about the cost of upkeep. Though she scolds her husband and demands he dispose of the dop (not in a mean-spirited way, she’s just being practical), he can’t bear to do it and invents a story that makes it seem that Jessy ought to be with them on the road. She’s one of the family now, and her ailing nature punctuates the story with a bit of comic relief.
By the end of the film, we still have many unanswered questions. Where is the son going? Will he ever see his family again, or is the nature of his voyage too secretive? How will the younger brother deal with loss, and will he understand it at all? It’s all part of the transient nature of growing up and moving on, but it feels more realistic than most American coming-of-age dramas: the parents oscillate between relief that their child is out in the world and the despair of not knowing what will happen to him. In a beautifully executed shot, we have the father telling the younger son a story while looking up at the stars, lying on his back. Lying on top of him, the son babbles on about a Batmobile costing $600 million, laughing as he invents a scenario with Batman on the streets of Tehran. Is his father laughing along – or is he weeping? We may never know, and the boy is blissfully un-self-aware.
There have been a number of other films throughout the London film festival that deal with the themes of parenthood and growing up. A24’s latest venture C’mon c’mon has been lauded as next year’s next big feature and the similarities between Hit The Road and the Joaquim Phoenix vehicle are marked. We also have Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film memoir which deals with his childhood, and all three of these films have been noted to resonate emotionally with their audiences. Hit The Road may not be a gala (and at the time of writing, I’m unsure of its distribution deal in the UK), but it certainly deserves a top spot among the festival features this year.