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Panah Panahi Hit the Road Review


Hit the Road | 2021 New York Film Festival Review

Hit the Road | 2021 New York Film Festival Review

Take the Wheel, My Son: Panahi’s Character-Driven Exodus

Panah Panahi Hit the Road ReviewHit the Road is equal parts hilarious and devastating. Tracking an Iranian family while they try to smuggle their eldest son into Turkey, filmmaker Panah Panahi changes tonal lanes with the deftness of a master. Never plot-driven, this assured debut feature is pure emotion, an uncharted road trip where the greatest conflicts are internal. A worthy descendant—both stylistic and biological—of Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, Hit the Road maps its own journey: playful, bittersweet and wholly surprising. By infusing pop sensibilities and comic gems into what could otherwise be a rehashing of Iranian New Wave sensibilities, thirty-seven-year-old Panahi steers you from one unexpected destination to the next.

Why must this family help their firstborn escape? While they protect their youngest from painful facts, the film coyly withholds context. We come to know the main cast more by behavior than name: Hassan Madjooni plays the curmudgeonly, hobbling Dad, Shrek-like in his gruff exterior/heart-of-gold interior; Pantea Panahiha plays Mom, our emotional compass and conduit, vainly shielding loved ones from heart-wrenching reality; Amin Simia, the sullen twenty-year-old on the run, is all brick walls until his kid brother sings a goofy song about peeing—prompting a moment of truth before the façade returns. He’s going to miss that rambunctious little toilet-mouth, but he can’t even tell him what’s about to go down. Speaking of which, the toilet-mouth: gleefully inhabited by Rayan Sarlak, the impish six-year-old is by far the film’s standout, breaking heavier moments with irreverent comedy and even song-and-dance. This kid’s going places.

While Panahi honors Iranian New Wave predecessors, most notably his father and Abbas Kiarostami, Hit The Road doesn’t adhere to tradition. Instead, Pahani’s vessel veers between the gutting drama of Flee (2021), the dysfunctional family of Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and the meditative pauses of 2001: A Space Odyssey (cited by the eldest son as his favorite film—symbolic of how he too must drift off into eternity). If this sounds heavy-handed, fret not: whenever this journey seems headed for a pothole, a Batman Begins reference—or some other delightful detour—steers us back on track. Hit the Road’s balancing act is reminiscent of Samuel Maoz’s excellent tragicomedy Foxtrot (2017)—but Panahi’s voice couldn’t feel more original.

The only drawback here is narrative restraint: the road heads in just one direction, and gradual sea change replaces dramatic urgency. Panahi’s intentionally oblique plotline adds a timeless, almost mythological quality, but this may frustrate viewers unaware of Iranian politics (or the director’s pedigree). It would be helpful to know that many Iranian filmmakers—including Panahi’s father—have been censored and imprisoned because of political content … and that Panahi’s obliqueness may be strategic as well as artistic.

A scene involving a struggling cyclist gives us one of 2021’s funniest sequences—plus a surprisingly poignant commentary on the quandaries of the human condition. But this is about more than just ‘moments’: as Hit the Road builds to a slow simmer, shots lengthen and emotions deepen, as if prolonging every last second before that unwanted goodbye. In one extended longshot, running figures are silhouetted against a purgatorial mist; in another, father nestles with son, wrapped in a shimmering heat jacket, blanketed by a freckling of stars. Clearly, Panahi the Younger is just getting started. He has enough wisdom and heart to know that the void is out there, and that laughing back is part of the answer.

Reviewed on October 6th at the 2021 New York Film Festival – Main Slate. 93 Minutes.


Dylan Kai Dempsey is a New York-based writer/filmmaker. His reviews have been published in Vanity Fair, Variety, No Film School, and He’s also developing a graphic novel as well as his own award-winning pilot script, #Likes4Lucas. He began as a development intern at Bonafide Productions in L.A. and Rainmark Productions in London.

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