Panah Panahi’s superb debut feature Detours to the Unknown

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“The cockroach thinks his baby is beautiful,” the middle-aged dad tells his 6-year-old.

“Are we cockroaches? asks the child. After a pause, the father replies, “We are now.”

This exchange, playful on the surface but heavy with silent grief, occurs late in “Hit The Road”, the stunning feature debut written and directed by Panahi on a troubled road trip, involving a young man fleeing Iran for a future uncertain. He is often referred to as a “traveller”, but there is more to it.

The young man is Farid (Amin Simiar). He drives to a meeting place, where masked guides on motorbikes are supposed to smuggle him into Turkey. His mother (Pantea Panahiha), his father (Hassan Majooni) and his younger brother (Rayan Sarlak) are in the game.

There was a summons, bail that cost his parents their house, and a reference to an unknown wrongful act, an act that Farid’s father caught him doing more than once. They ditched the SIM cards in their phones, paying close attention to cars that might follow them. But inside the SUV, there are more obstacles: their dog is dying in the back; the little brother is noisy, precocious and of an almost unbearable energy; Mom is, understandably, emotionally upset; Dad has a broken leg in a cast. They are hampered, but they continue to follow a nervous trajectory north to the border.

This kind of problem is a subject the filmmaker knows very well, having grown up with the son of the acclaimed and beleaguered director Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon”, “The Circle”). The elder Panahi’s difficulties with the Iranian government are well-documented, involving years of house arrest and a ban on making films, limitations he managed to circumvent without any risk.

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The similarities between real life and this fictional tale end there, of course. Whatever Farid’s troubles are, they’re scary enough for the family to come together and plan their escape. And though the ambient weight of that fear is an ever menacing and silent presence, Panahi’s script deftly pierces the darkness with a hectic, high-volume, cross-talk gallows humor that the whole family – barely controllable and at the wild limit of 6 years inclusive — is committed as a means of solidarity. Only Farid himself, the ostensible center of the crisis, remains silent. He speaks briefly, when pushed, keeping his eyes on the road and a perpetually stricken expression on his face.

Along the way, they encounter a cyclist whose devotion to his personal idol Lance Armstrong is dismantled with almost sly glee by the father. There are several conversations about how to get rid of the dog. There is talk of a lake once used for swimming now turned to dust. There are arguments over instructions, whether or not they are followed and by whom, and how to silence the little brother. During a roadside break, a stranger asks the father about his broken leg. His answer: “I fell… from grace.

And when the chattering, squabbling dust returns to the car, there are soothing chants to vintage Iranian pop songs (“This too will pass…make your peace…spring will bloom again and drown us in flowers…”) and film discussions . Farid’s favorite is Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” because “it calms you down.”

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Panahi and cinematographer Amin Jafari take familiar tropes from contemporary Iranian cinema and rework them with refreshing twists. Car interiors juxtaposed against landscape are something of an informal tradition from filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami to the elder Panahi, whom Jafari worked with as cinematographer on his 2018 feature “3 Faces.”

Here, the SUV is a transitional space between family devotion and the cold, callous threats of the outside world. Long, wide shots of what in other films would be heartbreaking climactic moments engulf unbearable emotional chaos and spit stains away accompanied by muffled screams and screams. When the frame has no room for anything but a dark close-up, the result is a repeated refrain of heavy, heavy stares straight into the lens.

The visually lyrical touches of Panahi and Jafari, taken cumulatively, have the effect of a signature in the making. There are tear-streaked, fourth-wall-breaking, lip-synch musical moments. There is an invading fog that could contain help or horror; motorcycle guides’ sheepskin masks look like something out of “The Strangers.” And then a return to Kubrick, in shots that slyly grab seemingly ordinary moments, making them both fantastical and heartbreaking.

At the heart of this story is an inherent desperation in the recent wave of films about people who have to leave and cross borders, Heidi Ewing’s “I Carry You With Me”, Fernando Frias’ “I’m No Longer Here” and Among them is the award-nominated documentary “Flee” by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. These are films that question assumptions about who, from which country, under what circumstances, is allowed to live a life free of deprivation, war and persecution.

Here, a family separating from an adult son, who otherwise would be a daily rite of passage into adulthood — the father, reflexively, jokes: “The cockroach’s parents sent him into the world with great hope” — becomes both an act of tender devotion and a chilling launch into space.

“Hit the Road” opens in New York on April 22, in Los Angeles and San Diego on May 6.

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