Are seasons still a thing? It’s still July (for a few more hours anyway), but this Seattle heat wave has me yearning for autumn conditions.

Ever since I saw Panah Panahi’s debut feature film, the dark road-movie comedy Hit the Road, I’ve imagined pulling my car off the hot Seattle streets, finding myself a patch of shade, and splaying my upper half out the window the way that the exhausted, exasperated driver does in in this film. If you were to glimpse him as you drove past, you’d think that he might have been shot, or suffered heatstroke, or been attacked by carjackers who dragged him halfway out, knocked him unconscious, and then abandoned their gambit. He leans backward out the car window, his arms splayed as if pantomiming crucifixion, his face turned skyward. He might be praying. Or he might just be exhausted.

Big Brother takes a break by the side of the road. [Image from the KinoLorber trailer.]

But that guy — played by Rayan Sarlak, and known in the film only as the “big brother” of the road-tripping family — is feeling anxiety about more than the heat. Yes, he is driving his parents, who are difficult, and his younger brother, who is hyperactive beneath cloudless skies on a mysterious trek to the Turkish border. So the typical stresses of being stuck in the car with a temperamental family are weighing on him. Moviegoers themselves should expect to feel a bit strained themselves by his father’s sullen, abrasive demeanor; his mother’s spirited attempts to turn frowns upside-down; and his little brother’s loudness and irrepressible energy.

But it’s worse than that. The heat beating down on the car is literal enough, but it might also be a metaphor for the troubles from which Big Brother is running, and the daunting gamble he is about to make with his life.

Running from his past, Big Brother is near despair about the road ahead. [Image from the KinoLorber trailer.]

I could say more, but much of the pleasure of Panahi’s impressive first film is in the way we’re kept guessing about what is really going on. This is Iran, and this is a movie made by the son of the great Jafar Panahi, an heroic Iranian artist who has nearly died in prison for resisting his government’s cruelty and censorship and making art that challenges injustice. So we should not be surprised that the car at the center of the screen feels like a pressure cooker, and that while the comic chemistry of this anxious family may remind us of American family road-trip comedies like Little Miss Sunshine, this takes place in a much scarier world, where the wrong run-in with police could end with incarceration or even executions. (Come to think of it, many Americans do run that risk every day. So this film might be more “relatable” for some than others.)

Is Panahi the Younger thinking of his father by casting the wonderfully grouchy Hassan Madjooni as Dad, who has to accept his backseat position due to a broken leg, and who is further afflicted by an infected tooth? Madjooni looks at times like one of those big, hairy, cantankerous Muppets as he argues with his wife, wrestles with his flailing and flamboyant younger son, and rolls his eyes as his warnings and counsel go ignored. It would be easy just to take him as comic relief. But as the movie unfolds, we begin to sense that there is much more to this man than meets the eye, and that his troubles might be signs of sacrifices he has made for this family.

Is Dad just dead weight on the journey? Or is he the real driver on this mysterious journey? [Image from the KinoLorber trailer.]

By contrast, Mother — played with radiance and affecting heartbreak by the beautiful Pantea Panahiha — is an icon of optimism, affection, and warmth for her whole family. And yet, for all of her bright smiles and songs, she cannot hide that the secret of this journey is tearing her apart inside. Watch, and you’ll catch her turning away, shedding sudden tears, and then mustering the strength to turn back and brighten the weary travelers’ spirits again.

And then there’s the flamboyant six-year-old, played by Rayan Sarlak, who resembles the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Toons, and who will have moviegoing parents glancing at each other in sympathy as they recall their own toddlers’ most hysterical behavior. He may test your patience, but I think you’ll be thankful for him by the film’s end. When the full details of Panahi’s narrative are revealed, you’ll be thankful for any source of levity.

Mother conceals the secret of the family road trip in her silences. [Image from the KinoLorber trailer.]

Oh, I’ve almost forgotten to mention the fifth traveler — the ailing dog Jessy, who goes almost unseen for much of the movie, miserable and motionless in the rear of the vehicle. Jessy seems like a metaphor or a manifestation of — what? This family’s troubles? Their hopes for their country? Their future? It’s hard to say, but where dogs are usually useful as jokes in road-trip comedies (I’m particularly fond of the one in the Chevy Chase/Jon Candy classic The Great Outdoors), this one only triggers a few laughs, serving more as a sign of foreboding. There is a sense of desperation about this journey — the family has already lost their house for reasons that won’t be revealed until late, so the prospect of losing any family member (even the dog) threatens to turn this comedy into a tragedy.

It’s hard to distinguish between those who can help and those who mean harm along these desolate borderland roads. [Image from the KinoLorber trailer.]

There are big surprises along the way, the biggest of which involve sudden catapults into fantasy. One in particular reminded me of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, in which characters philosophizing together across a patio table might suddenly morph into clouds drifting through space. This caught me off guard, as the director’s style carries his father’s comical take on realism forward with such confidence; I was never expecting special effects, images that play like waking dreams, or musical numbers sung to the audience. (I’ll need to see it again to decide if these really “work” — they are brave choices, but they felt incongruous and discombobulating for me on this first viewing.)

But my favorite surprises come courtesy of cinematographer Amin Jafari, who occasionally pulls back for impressive long takes with the family and others appearing in the far distance, sometimes on the horizon as if figures in a shadowplay. These moments, revealing the winding line of the road zigzagging across golden hills as if uncertain about its own direction, seem to refer to masterworks by another legendary Iranian filmmaker: Abbas Kiarostami. I wouldn’t have been surprised if characters from Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy showed up at one of the roadside stops.

Hassan Madjooni and Pantea Panahiha are outstanding as the desperate parents in this suspenseful ensemble comedy. [Image from the KinoLorber trailer.]

Even as you can feel governmental oppression constraining Iranian art, you have to marvel at the courage of the artists who risk their lives to bring their visions of suffering and hope to the world outside. I am sure that there are many aspects of this film — blatant and subtle — that I am missing due to my privilege: I’ve never walked these roads, suffered these limitations, or lived with such grim prospects. But as I sense my own country giving up its hard-won freedom to the schemes of con-men and fascists, I sense that I have much to learn from artists like the Panahis — both Senior and Junior — who suffer with eyes wide open, using what tools they have to fight the power, to tell the truth, to laugh despite their sufferings, and to hang on to hope… for future generations, if not for themselves.

In view of that, although I find its bittersweetness discomforting, and although its conclusion leaves me struggling to make sense of what I’ve seen, I am grateful for Hit the Road. In a year of so many excessive and almost-meaningless blockbusters, audiences need challenges like this one to remind them that art, at its best, is not just about entertainment: art afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. Art isn’t just what we watch; art is what gets us talking, struggling, arguing, and asking questions. Art makes us work in order to help us grow.

And Panah Panahi is, thank goodness, a true artist who is just getting started. May God bless the hard roads ahead of him. May he find attentive audiences. May he know safety. And may he find places to pull off the road, rest in the shade, and dream his way to even greater art for a world that needs it.