With a touch on the pedal so light you don’t even feel the woosh, Panah Panahi, son of Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, goes instantaneously from zero to 60 with his debut feature, “Hit the Road.” Doubly surprising, he does it repeatedly within the film too, from scene to scene — and within scenes, from moment to moment — accelerating and decelerating so abruptly, switching moods like gears, like radio stations, that by the end we should be rattling around inside, carsick, dying to get out. Instead, its 93 minutes whip by so airily, it’s possible not to realize how much you’ve learned to love the family whose road trip you’ve shared in, until the credits roll and you immediately start to miss them.
“Hit the Road,” again like its director, works from a standing start. The car — which we learn is a borrowed vehicle — has pulled in by the side of the road while its occupants rest and its driver stretches. We can’t know it yet, but there is subtle foreshadowing in who is inside the car, dozing or drowsing, and who is outside, looking in, drumming fingers on the rear window at the family dog, watching the others with an unreadable but notably tender expression. Arranged and observed like this, it feels like the kind of nothing moment that springs to mind in times of homesickness, as opposed to any more considered or rehearsed farewell, such as the one in which, as we presently learn, this journey is meant to end.
We don’t get to know these characters by name so much as by their relative positions within the family constellation, and within the car. Up front, we have Mom (Pantea Panahiha), perhaps the clan’s pole star, though also the most demonstrative and expressive character, with moods that pass across her lovely face like changing landscapes. Beside her sits her elder son (Amin Simiar), pensive and quiet, except in one beautifully observed conversation with his shaggy, bearlike Dad (Hassan Madjooni), who sits in the back with his right leg in a tatty cast sticking through the gap between the front seats. Ostensibly beside him, but really pinging around the car like a pinball is the younger son (instant superstar Rayan Sarlak), nicknamed “Monkey the Second” by Dad, whose irrepressible, bendy, explosive energy gives the film its anarchic spirit. And right in the back, there’s Jessy, the family dog, whose late-stage illness is one of the secrets being kept from the little boy.
Another secret, only ever partially revealed, is the actual reason for the journey, which is a melancholy and perhaps even dangerous one, that justifies Mom’s fear at one point that they are being followed — paranoia further borne out when the messenger they’ve arranged to meet turns out to be a horror-movie-style motorcyclist wearing a crudely fashioned burlap sack as a mask. But the younger boy punctures the fearfulness of the encounter by cheerily observing how he looks like The Scarecrow from the Batman films, just as later, at a moment of maximal potential sorrow, he will look up at us directly and with absurdly perfect rhythm, lip sync to the crooning strains of an old Iranian pop song.
Movie and pop love is evident throughout “Hit the Road.” Dad is reduced to helpless gales of laughter imagining the drop in resale value on a scratched Batmobile. “2001: A Space Odyssey” crops up directly and then obliquely, in a lovely surreal flourish when, wrapped in a foil sleeping bag while tinkling music plays stars into being on the grass all around, suddenly Dad and child are not father and son but astronaut and star-child, lashed together but lost in space. It’s an overtly magical moment, but Amin Jafari’s unobtrusively gorgeous camerawork can find wonder in much more prosaic scenes too.
But then, there is lovely concert here between all the departments, orchestrated by Panahi so that editors Ashkan Mehri and Amir Etminan are sometimes expressively restrained, as when one of Jafari’s long takes curls around the interior space taking in several of those spectacular hairpin shifts in Panahiha’s performance, as Mom goes from laughter to tears to shouts of exultation to grimaces of pain, a bravura actor’s exercise that never feels like one. And the editing can also be bold, as when a long, grief-stricken glance between Mom and Dad snaps like the end of a hypnosis spell into an unbelievably joyous shot of Monkey the Second with his head out of the sun roof as the car speeds across a cracked desert.
Shades of Panahi Sr. exist in the film’s loopy humor. Abbas Kiarostami, for whom Pahani fils worked as assistant, hovers fondly in the dazzling, often heartbreaking use of extreme wide shots. Both these Iranian elders are known for their car-based filmmaking. And yet, like this extraordinary, ordinary family, latticed together by love yet supremely alive in their own individual hearts, Panah Panahi is not just part of a tradition, but his own filmmaker, finding new resonances in territory so familiar its power to surprise should have been thoroughly exhausted by now, but that here feels like a whole new universe.