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MOVIE REVIEW

‘Hit the Road’ follows a family, and their dog, on a road less traveled

The directorial debut of Iranian filmmaker Panah Panahi (son of famed director Jafar Panahi) is now playing at the Brattle.

Hasan Majuni (left) and Pantea Panahiha in "Hit the Road."Kino Lorber

A family takes a road trip. Nothing odd about that, except that in “Hit the Road” oddities start to pile up. For starters, the road trip is in Iran. Well, the family is Iranian, 85 million people live there, and a lot of those people own cars. So that’s not necessarily unusual. Except that the landscapes the family travels through are so empty and desolate. Tehran, or any population center, feels very far away.

“Hit the Road” is playing at the Brattle Theatre.

The family consists of mother (Pantea Panahiha), father (Hasan Majuni), and two brothers (Rayan Sarlak and Amin Simiar). There’s a dog, too. What could be more normal? Again, oddities emerge. The father, Khosro, has a broken leg. Mournful and dyspeptic, he sits in the back seat with his leg propped up. The mother is alternately cheery and weepy. The younger son, who’s about 6, is a real handful, constantly chattering. Farid, the other son, is 15 or 20 years older. He does the driving and is very subdued. The dog is sick. The SUV they’re in, a Mitsubishi, is borrowed. And why does the mother get so rattled when she notices someone seems to be following them?

Pantea Panahiha (left) and Amin Simiar in "Hit the Road."Kino Lorber

The actors are quite extraordinary, Panahiha especially. The three males are maddening in various ways. Her ability to put up with them verges on the regal — or saintly — or both. Baleful and beleaguered, Majuni grumps his way through the movie with comparable authority. Sarlak isn’t so much a child actor, and an excellent one, as a verbal perpetual motion machine. Simiar, having the least to do, may have the toughest assignment. He makes wariness seem like a superpower.

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Why these four are on the road — wait, five, the dog’s name is Jessy — gradually emerges over the course of Panah Panahi’s directing debut. Panahi also wrote the skillfully elliptical script. What matters more than plot, though, is how good he is at family dynamics. (The temptation is to add “uneasy,” but what family dynamics aren’t?) With his fondness for long takes and unobtrusive camerawork, Panahi has a real knack for maintaining a balance between comedy, usually courtesy of the younger son, and deeper feeling.

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Pantea Panahiha (left) and Rayan Sarlak in "Hit the Road."Kino Lorber

What’s even more impressive is Panahi’s feel for space and terrain. The family are like fish in an automotive aquarium, with this immense, unpopulated ocean on the other side of the glass. The family’s shifting surroundings are a constant presence, at once oppressive and enticing. Certainly, they’re enticing for the viewer, whether the bleak, Badlands-like setting seen early on or the greener, gentler, hillier region that’s their destination. A pivotal scene plays out at dusk — with the parents and the man they’re negotiating with seen in long shot — their figures barely visible in the far distance. It’s a reminder that as large as the family looms, literally, inside the SUV (it gets crowded in there), this vastly larger world around them dominates.

Hasan Majuni (left) and Amin Simiar in "Hit the Road."Kino Lorber

In so arresting a use of such striking terrain, Panahi recalls Nuri Bilge Ceylan and “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (2011). That is very high praise. But another gifted director needs mentioning. If the surname of this first-time filmmaker seems familiar, that’s because he shares it with his famous father, Jafar Panahi (who’s one of the producers of “Hit the Road”). The two Panahis further share a talent for understated comedy and preference for simple, stripped-down filmmaking. “Hit the Road” also extends a Panahi preference for automotive interiors, which began with Jafar’s “Taxi” (2015).

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That film was made surreptitiously. Justly famed for his filmmaking, Jafar Panahi is now even more famous for the unjust treatment he’s endured for more than a decade from the Iranian government. He was charged in 2010 with “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and spent time in prison. He continues to live under house arrest and is banned from filmmaking. Might some of the narrative opacity in “Hit the Road” owe as much to political considerations as artistic? One can only hope the son never shares his father’s legal fate. He definitely shares his talent.

★★★

HIT THE ROAD

Written and directed by Panah Panahi. Starring Pantea Panahiha, Hasan Majuni, Rayan Sarlak, Amin Simiar. At Brattle. 93 min. Unrated (as PG: language and a sick pet). In Persian, with subtitles.





Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.