Producers: Panah Panahi and Mastaneh Mohajer   Director: Panah Panahi   Screenplay: Panah Panahi    Cast: Hassan Madjooni, Pantea Panahiha, Rayan Sarlak and Amin Simiar   Distributor: Kino Lorber

Grade: B+

Road movies can be genial, raucous, suspenseful, tragic, or a mélange of many different, even discordant qualities; this one, the first feature by Iranian filmmaker Panah Panahi (son of the noted, often persecuted Jafar), falls into the latter category, mingling comedy, pathos and melancholy, and even song and surrealism, in a surprisingly intoxicating combination.  “Hit the Road” isn’t a high-octane affair filled with chases and breathless escapes; it’s a domestic dramedy set largely in a car that ambles along but shifts emotional gears with sometimes astonishing abruptness, managing to do so without ever collapsing into tonal chaos.

The entire film consists of a family’s journey along an Iranian highway to a destination revealed only gradually.  The grumpy father (Hassan Madjooni) is lodged in the back seat of their borrowed vehicle, his leg encased in a plaster cast.  His companion there is his hyperactive six-year old son (scene-stealer Rayan Sarlak), who doodles on his father’s arm and the car’s window while pestering everyone else with a stream of questions and irksome comments.  Tucked away behind the back seat is the family dog.

Driving is the elder brother, a solemn, pensive young man who seldom speaks.  Beside him in the passenger seat is his mother (Pantea Panahiha), who can shift from high-spirited and gay to morose and fearful in a flash.

And there is something to be afraid of, as is suggested near the start when the mother anxiously insists that they’re being followed, necessitating a sudden pit stop at a gas station where the family lounge for a bit.  That’s only one such delay; in another, mom and dad take away the cell phone that the rambunctious six-year old has snuck along with him despite a prohibition against bringing it, and literally hide it under a rock to be retrieved on the return leg of the trip.  He protests that he might miss out on important calls, but has to accept the inevitable.  As it turns out, though, it’s not the only phone someone’s surreptitiously carrying.  Another interlude involves helping a man involved in an accident during a bicycle race—caused by the kid, of course—either to get home, or maybe to cheat on his competitors.

Eventually the reason for the trip becomes clear.  The son is in some trouble with the authorities that could have serious repercussions and has already compelled the family to sell a car to raise money to hire smugglers to get him across the border to relative safety.  The parents are keeping that secret from the boy, who perhaps buys their suggestion that his brother is going to get married.  (They’re also not telling him that the dog is sick, at one point even trying to lose the sweet animal.)

When they reach their destination, the script mixes tones with abandon.  At one point the parents tie the boy to a tree to keep him from interfering in the arrangements they’re making (an episode shot beautifully from a distant perspective by cinematographer Amin Jafari), at another father and older son, whose dissimilarity has bred estrangement, share a reconciliatory talk, along with an apple, sitting on rocks as a stream rushes behind them (again, a lovingly composed sequence shot by Jafari with an unmoving camera).  There are also darkly comic moments involving a smuggler arriving on a motorcycle with a burlap bag on his head, and the father’s being asked to choose a sheep whose skin will serve as camouflage for his son. 

And all that is in addition to an ethereal sequence in which the boy, wrapped in the arms of his father, who is in turn wrapped in a shining foil sleeping bag, ascend into the starry sky. (The departing son has earlier waxed eloquent about “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)  It’s the last of several interludes that take the film, though rooted in realism, into occasional flights of fancy, as when characters lip-synch to pop songs (both mother and son get show-stopping opportunities here).  (The spare original score is by Payman Yazdanian.)

One might imagine that a film that takes so many risks in terms of diverse moods would wind up seeming disjointed.  It’s a credit to writer-director Panahi and editors Ashkan Mehri and Amir Etminan that doesn’t happen.  And the cast is remarkable:  Madjooni, Panahiha, Simiar and the irrepressible Sarlak make an ensemble you won’t easily forget.                 

From first to last this is an amazingly assured debut from Panahi fils that both warms and breaks the heart, while also making you smile.