I Am the Cosmos
By Demi Kampakis

NYFF 2021:
Hit the Road
Dir. Panah Panahi, Iran, Kino Lorber

A family of four embarks on a road trip. In the car are Mom and Dad and their two sons: one very rambunctious six-year-old and the youngster’s big brother, a bespectacled and noticeably pensive young man. Mom seems occupied with pressing thoughts while Dad, a scruffy and heavy-lidded bear with curmudgeonly charm, snoozes in the back. Riding in the trunk is Jessy, the family’s scene-stealing small dog ailing from a likely fatal leg infection. In a deliberate touch, Jessy the dog is the only character whose name is revealed. Mom and Dad secretly hope that Jessy will make a break for it into the vast, rugged expanse; at least that would spare them the difficulty of watching him suffer and telling their youngest his beloved pet had to be put down. Perhaps this trip is a sendoff; a way to give the furry family member one last adventure.

Moments after we meet the troupe, Mom discovers the early 2000s-era Nokia cellphone her younger son smuggled into the car, and they immediately pull over to the side of the road. The rules were explicit for everyone: no cell phones, no exceptions. So, she gets out and buries the contraband in an arid clearing near the highway, much to the young one’s emphatic protests. He has important business matters to tend to, he insists to his father, and if he doesn’t stay in contact with his various acquaintances, they will worry. “Who could possibly worry about you more than your own family?” Dad amusingly quips. Exiting the SUV, the kid shouts his love for the land beneath his feet into the open sunbaked air and kneels, literally kissing the ground and staining his pants with parched dirt. Mom’s furious exasperation tells us this is something he does often. The parents’ decision to bury the phone in the desert seems a tad dramatic, especially if the goal is to merely eliminate screen time for the sake of bonding. The reason they’ve gone to such lengths will soon be clarified.

Hit the Road marks the directorial debut of Panah Panahi, the son of legendary exiled Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. He previously worked as an editor on some of his father’s films, including 2019’s 3 Faces—and while collaborating, it’s clear Panahi took notes. In an echo to the elder’s 2015 masterpiece Taxi and in the great Iranian cinematic tradition, notably the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi presents this vibrant, bracing, and tenderly devastating family portrait through the pressurized chamber setup of a road movie. Not unlike a car swerving between lanes, so too does this film quickly shift tonal gears, veering between physical comedy and heartbreaking pathos often with a single look, word, or pause. By defying the constraints of genre, Panahi has elevated his freshman examination of a family’s internecine dynamics into the realm of textured cinematic poetry.

Dad, also suffering a leg injury from a fall, is unable to drive, so “Big Bro” assumes the role of designated driver while the precocious tyke drives their parents up the wall from the back seat. Seated in the rear with his leg propped on the front console, Dad has the misfortune of being the most convenient prop for his son’s restless shenanigans, which include the kid “playing” a piano he drew on his father’s cast. The four get on each other’s nerves one minute, and the next break into song and dance when their favorite pop ballads play on the radio; exuberant carpool karaoke sessions poignant in their levity and abandon. The family members also squabble, tease each other, and discuss current events while munching on cucumbers and pistachios, stopping for the occasional smoke break. At one point they pass a group of racing cyclists, one of whom gets knocked off his bike when the car gets a little too close, forcing him to exit the race and hitch a ride home with the group. The polite young man thanks them all for the lift.

These and other gags gird a film whose comedic DNA is personally and culturally felt; grounded in observational humor, strained family dynamics, and punctuated moments of absurdity that expose the emotional whiplash of daily modern life. In the hands of Panahi’s soulful actors, these five idiosyncratic characters use humor as a shield from painful realities. And as the family nears their destination and the somber purpose of their trip is revealed, Hit the Road’s comic beats take on a solemn introspection, and pointed sociopolitical commentary. A striking extended scene in a meadowed field, shot in dwarfing, static wide frame, illustrates the chasm between the ridiculous and the devastating. Interpersonal resentments and fissures continue to surface, but the family’s chaotic dynamic is now more intimate, hushed, reflective and fraught. Suddenly, the absurd sight of a plastic chair dragging itself across a desert landscape takes on a crushing import.

The subtle grace of the film’s increasingly tragic currents reverberates during later moments of familial affection, sacrifice and loss. In one such sequence, Dad swaddles his youngest as they lay down near a campfire. The former is covered head to toe in a space blanket jumpsuit, and keeping with these sci-fi notes, the two discuss their shared love of Batman. With a bird’s eye view, Panahi slowly pans out until what we’re seeing is a diminishing Michelin Man silhouette slowly drifting into the starry sky. Time slows, and the pair is quietly, gradually boomeranged into the limitless, twinkling void. As they’re subsumed into the twilight ether in the film’s second direct nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey (the film is discussed earlier in the car), Hit the Road channels the mesmeric beauty of Kubrick’s masterpiece. This melancholic, celestial sojourn poignantly illustrates Hit the Road’s life-affirming resilience. With Mom cradling Jessy nearby, father and son’s quietly rapturous embrace is a humbling and harmonious reminder that our own problems are eclipsed by the universe’s elusive and elliptical grand design. Even with all our alienations and sorrows, we are but single stars among the infinite cosmos, colliding by chance.