Hit the Road
Here they all are on the road. The whole family. Singing along to bad love songs, munching on pistachios. They laugh, they scream, they squeal—rolling along like they’re taking off on one big vacation. There’s the road stretching out before them. It’s a road in Iran, somewhere partway between the house the family expects to lose and the mountains where their adult son will cross the Iranian border disguised as a sheep. It’s a specific road they’re traveling, strange and precarious. But with the playful mood in the car—the family’s gags and eccentric bits—it often feels like a road anyone could ride.
In Hit The Road (2021), Panah Panahi has created a road trip movie about immigration, a tragedy that bounces along with the jubilance of a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a film built on weird little moments. Here, the mother pulls out an album showcasing her child’s pee. There, the father insists on making his son’s neck into a scrumptious meal. These scenes are whimsical and raunchy. Like something out of one of those big American movies about families barreling down highways, camp classics like Little Miss Sunshine (2006) or We’re the Millers (2013). Movies about the freedom of the road, that place where people can be loud and bold, because anything is allowed.
On the road, everyone sheds their context: meetings, house repairs, dentist appointments. The clutter of a particular life vanishes, and everyone expands. They become louder, vibrant, more fully themselves. Hit The Road starts at this moment, with everyone bursting to say who they are. When we enter the scene, the car is already rolling, and Panahi doesn’t stop to work out the details. He never tells us who these people are, what they do, where they’re from. Instead, he tells us what they’re like. How they joke, how they dance. In the backseat, the little boy twirls his hips suggestively, eyes closed, forgetting himself—that’s where your attention lands.
Beneath it all, there’s a current of fear. You detect it when the mother snatches a lock of her son’s hair, when the little boy asks where they’re all going. Suddenly the camera cuts to a sweeping shot of the road, turning the family car into an ant-sized dot in the desert. For a few seconds, you see the whole picture, the stakes of the situation. The weight of it threatens to overwhelm the family’s carefully constructed world of fantasy and play. For a few beats, the car goes quiet. Then someone laughs, a song erupts on the radio. The moment passes, and everyone forgets what they know.
When faced with something big, the story of a family taking their son to the border, Panahi burrows into something small: the tiny world inside a minivan, a place full of closeups and details, where even a pistachio has its special meaning, its particular purpose in the story. Within this scrunched-up world, it’s impossible to lose sight of the characters traveling through the landscape, their quirks and whims. Every little movement of theirs matters. Here’s a shot of a boy balancing a nut on his father’s cast. Now a closeup on a dog’s ears twirling in time with the radio. The camera sees all of it, excavating every last detail—a limp bag, an expressive crutch, a window covered in doodles—handling each with the same care you would give to a closeup on a human face. Ultimately, these details amount to exactly that: a closeup on human life. In assembling them, Panahi has created something different from a movie of immigration. He has made something more chaotic and free: a movie about people who happen to be immigrating.
Panahi began writing Hit The Road after his sister left Iran to escape persecution. He says he wanted to recapture how his family felt the moment before she went. On her last day in the country, no one cried. They played music instead. Through this little thing, a jumble of songs, they distracted themselves from the big thing about to happen. They made it manageable, something they could stand. There’s lots of singing in Hit The Road. Angsty pop music about love gone wrong. Everyone dances along. These little moments bring something down to size for the characters, and also for us. They make it possible for the family to complete a journey they can hardly bear, and for us to follow them there—not as players in a drama, but as people: themselves.
Two little dots stand beneath a gigantic mountain. It’s the mother and her youngest son, on the side of the road, looking up at the great big thing filling the screen. They’re standing in the middle of one of those shots that can swallow a person whole. But the boy is so loud it’s impossible to forget that he’s there—this little blob in the center, chattering away like he’s the biggest thing on the screen. He tells us that the mountains are full of pistachios, cakes, frogs—that this great big thing is actually made up of things so small he could fit them in the palm of his tiny hand. With his words, he brings the mountain down to size. He makes it something he can manage, something he can hold.