The terrible irony of Jafar Panahi's recent house arrest and eventual incarceration by the Iranian authorities was that Panahi had long been one of world cinema's most mobile directors: consider 2015's Taxi Tehran, in which the filmmaker effectively set himself up as his own Uber franchise. (Maybe he went too far for the authorities; maybe he saw too much on his travels. Mobility remains a grave threat to all those seeking to maintain the status quo.) Hit the Road, the breakthrough film of Panahi's son Panah Panahi, has clearly been informed by many long hours spent in the back of the family car, kicking the seat in front and plaintively inquiring "Are we there yet?" - where "there" perhaps corresponds to "a better place". The set-up is universal, which may explain why this became the first Iranian film in several years to make a dent internationally: a family embarking upon a cross-country roadtrip, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath or The Beverly Hillbillies. Within minutes, the film has sized these travellers up. There's the bearded, bear-like father (Mohammed Hassan Madjooni), confined to the backseat with a broken leg; his understandably concerned wife (Pantea Panahiha); and the couple's two sons, the eldest (Amin Simiar), obliged to drive with the grimmest expression imaginable; and the youngest (Rayan Sarlak), the kind of precocious moppet who allows foreign-language movies to break clear of the festival circuit and into cinemas proper. (There's also a dog in the back, for bonus ingratiation.) We've also found out something's gone awry, judging from the great fuss the family makes about discarding their phones and their creeping suspicion they're being followed from a discreet distance. Panahi Jr. demonstrates far greater patience than any of us did as a child, presented with even a vaguely comparable scenario. The reason for the family's flight is only gradually insinuated, as is their destination, and the mission they find themselves on. In the meantime, they remain their own worst obstacles, forever getting in one another's way - often on one another's nerves - in the cramped confines of a beat-up station wagon you fear will conk out at any moment.
En route, we gather that Panahi has prised loose a camera that was largely fixed rigidly to the windscreen and wing mirrors of his predecessors in the Iranian cinema. Hit the Road drifts from the nervy front seats to the chaos in the back, then to looking out the side windows at Kiarostami-like landscapes, before finally taking flight with one or two sequences that are all this filmmaker's own, that owe nothing to nobody; what it appears to underline is how each generation builds on the achievements of the one before, and - ideally - enjoys a greater freedom, too. This is undeniably an Iranian film, centred on characters facing up to very specific circumstances that may relate in some way to those of the filmmaker's own family. Yet where Panahi Sr., Kiarostami and the Makhmalbafs had almost to invent a new cinematic language - to communicate among themselves, out of the earshot (and beyond the immediate comprehension) of those who would clamp them down - Panahi Jr. allows Hit the Road a freewheeling quality not unlike that of Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers, perhaps the film's closest Western equivalent in its mix of careful character observation and broader, hard-earned life wisdoms. In short, it's very definitely the work of someone who has travelled, and seen the world and its movies. It also establishes Panahi as a fine director of actors, allowing scenes to play out long enough to fully reveal the disparate personalities obliged by external circumstance to occupy this same small space: the mournful older brother, wrestling internally with guilt over being the cause of this disruption; the quietly optimistic mother, trying to chivvy him through this transitional moment; the bluff patriarch, distant, sometimes difficult, but acutely human in his dishevelment (to that broken leg, add broken hands and a toothache, further signs of a body collapsing inward with all the stress); and finally the bright-eyed kid, who will - we hope - outlive them all, and have a happier life than any. Panahi keeps his eyes on the road, but he also maintains a stirring sense of what's around the bend and over the horizon.
Hit the Road is released on DVD through Picturehouse Entertainment from Monday.