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27 July 2022

The return of the road-trip movie

Hit the Road and Joyride both have a long-distance car ride at their centre – but one takes a route less travelled.

By David Sexton

When it comes to Irish road movies, you can’t beat Waiting for Godot. “‘Well? Shall we go?’ ‘Yes, let’s go.’ [They do not move].” Always room for another, though. Joyride, written by Ailbhe Keogan and directed by Emer Reynolds (best known for her documentary on the Voyager spacecraft, The Farthest), takes us for a trip around lush County Kerry. Twelve-year-old Mully (Charlie Reid) has lost his mum to cancer and now lives with his waster dad. When Da tries to steal money raised for charity in a local bar, Mully snatches the cash from him and makes his getaway behind the wheel of an unattended taxi in the street outside.

He doesn’t notice until too late that 40-something “saucy solicitor” Joy (Olivia Colman), known to him as “Vodka-Tonic” after her regular order, is comatose in the back – along with her newborn baby girl (“fresh out of the box”). And there’s our odd-couple meet-cute.

Joy, whose own family life was bitter, isn’t up for motherhood. So she’s taking the baby to be adopted by her sister and then escaping to Lanzarote. “I’m going forward, not back,” she keeps insisting, hardly able to look at her daughter. Colman gives a more plausible and likeable reading of tormented motherhood here than she did in The Lost Daughter.

Foul-mouthed he may be, but Mully has a heart of gold and he’s shocked. Joy’s a “mentalist”, he reckons. Fortunately, he knows all about babies from looking after his niece, urging Joy to change her mind and teaching her how to breastfeed when she runs out of formula. (The idea for the script came to Keogan on a walk after she had difficulty breastfeeding her firstborn.) Joy is so moved her tears drop on the baby’s head. “You just baptised her there,” Mully remarks, in case we missed that.

[ See also: Where the Crawdads Sing is a lesson in how not to adapt a bestseller ]

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Meanwhile, the pair racket around the countryside – rowing at first, before beginning to trust and help each other – pursued by Mully’s dad, after the cash. The regular road-movie tropes are all there in minor mode: breaking through a roadblock, running out of petrol, hitching a ride, stealing another car… They even manage a ferry ride across the Shannon, the kindly ferryman informing Mully that in parenthood, “there’s no fractions in play, you can’t half-love a child”.

Joyride is almost as heartwarming as it wants to be, and Colman and Reid work beautifully together, but it is too emphatic and explicitly symbolic to be fully affecting. When Mully asks the baby’s name, Joy tells him it’s Robin, having just spotted a robin. Mully says his ma was a Robin, too. A robin then pops up repeatedly though the film, even on the ferry. The many songs all hit the spot with painful precision.

The concept of the road movie has been most radically reinvented in Iran, by Abbas Kiarostami and his follower Jafar Panahi, exploring the ways in which filming in and from a car can navigate between the public and the private, freedom and restriction. Panahi’s 2015 Taxi Tehran, filmed almost entirely in a shared taxi by tiny high-definition fixed cameras, showed just how liberated cinema can be by the most severe limitations.

Hit the Road, which won best film at last year’s London Film Festival, is the feature debut of Jafar’s son and one-time assistant, Panah Panahi. It is directly in the line of their work, but has an ambition and humour all its own. A family of four is on a journey, in a borrowed SUV, through the immense and rugged landscapes of north-west Iran, accompanied by an ailing dog.

Grumpy, sarky dad (Hassan Madjooni) has his leg in plaster; mum (Pantea Panahiha) is alternately serene and anguished. The elder son (Amin Simiar) is withdrawn and sullen, but his younger brother (the amazing Rayan Sarlak, just six when this was filmed) is a crazy ball of energy, both enchanting the family and driving them nuts. The kid thinks they are taking his brother to his wedding, but slowly it becomes clear he is “a traveller”, heading to the Turkish border to be smuggled out of the country. They pick up an injured cyclist, they’re flagged down by another motorist. The little boy delivers an incredible lip-sync performance to a pre-Revolutionary Iranian pop anthem.

Scenes unroll with little camera movement, many wholly within the car. One revelatory moment is filmed in extreme and distant widescreen while the soundtrack remains up close. Another takes us to the stars. The film feels like truly taking this ambiguous journey with this family. The road movie made new.

“Joyride” and “Hit the Road” are in cinemas 29 July

[ See also: From Top Gun to Jurassic World: blockbuster cinema is back! ]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special