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Hit the Road review – Iranian debut is a claustrophobic crowd-pleaser

Winner of Best Film at last year's London Film Festival, this smart drama from director Panah Panahi charts a chaotic family journey

A cross-country road trip with a hyperactive child can make for an exhausting, claustrophobic, nerve-shredding experience. In Hit the Road, we follow a dysfunctional family as they try to keep a young boy (Rayan Sarlak) entertained while his adult brother (Amin Simiar), escaping Iran due to some unspoken political oppression, drives them to the border. Everyone in the car except the boy is fully aware that this may be the last time they’re all together.

Hit the Road works as a breezy, funny road trip movie, but director Panah Panahi (son of Jafar, one of the leading lights of Iran’s New Wave of the ‘90s) undercuts that breeziness with the dawning realisation that this journey represents a low-scale tragedy for the family. Glances between fussy mother (Pantea Panahiha), irate father (Hasan Majuni), and silent elder son speak to reserves of depth in their relationships, all left unsaid.

The boy, Rayan Sarlak, is that rare thing – a child actor who seems to be completely unaware of the camera, and who entirely envelops the cramped space of the car. He’s insistent, annoying, more than a little spoilt, constantly demanding things his own way, fully aware that his parents cannot refuse him when he flashes that charming smile.

His constant energy and enveloping of the story means that the underlying heartbreak goes silent (he thinks big brother is getting married), and the family collectively struggles to articulate their pain to each other. There’s an improvisatory, unscripted quality to the film, as if Panahi had written the dialogue for the three adult actors, then given Sarlak instructions to do everything in his power to distract from their task.

Panahi’s use of space within the car affords the actors plenty of time to develop their roles, with long takes, only occasionally panning, accentuating the sense of claustrophobia. The car – so often a  space for the private and personal in Iranian cinema, like in the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami, or Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran – is shown as a stifling place where the truth goes unheard.

This tonal layering gives the film much of its growing emotional punch, which builds throughout as the family comes closer and closer to the point of goodbye. At times, the nearest comparison may actually be the American indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, but with actual characters instead of comic quirks. And it's a safe choice for this year's Best Film winner at the London Film Festival, being both a crowd-pleaser and a smart drama.

But that Little Miss Sunshine comparison also points to the film’s major weakness, namely its occasional aesthetic similarity to the American indie cinema of the 21st century, alongside its painful self-preciousness and straining for emotive heartstrings. It simply does not work in this otherwise naturalistic milieu, draining its emotional drive when it hews towards ironic detachment and music video iconography. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the colossal misstep that represents the film’s closing scene – which simply takes all that very keenly observed emotive power and throws it out the car window in a moment of pop foolishness. A tasteless end to a mostly tasteful film.

Hit the Road was screened as part of the London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 29 July 2022.

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