Two-man drama takes viewers for an emotional ride
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Souleymane Sy Savane, Red West
Hitting theaters at the apex of the summer movie season, Goodbye Solo represents the precise cinematic antipode of blockbuster, mega-budget, FX-choked fare like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Written and directed by North Carolina-born filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, Goodbye Solo is a microscopic character study involving two people, a taxi cab and precious little else.
Having turned out the well-regarded, little-seen Brooklyn-based drama Chop Shop, Bahrani returns home to Winston-Salem to spin the tale of Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a cheerful Senegalese taxi driver chipping away at the American dream one cab fare at a time. One of Solo’s regular customers is a grumpy elderly gentleman known as William (Red West, longtime actor and charter member of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia). Night after lonely night, William gets a ride to a local movie theater where he chats with the ticket clerk, watches a film and returns home. One evening, the tight-lipped William makes Solo an offer: He’ll pay the cabbie a thousand dollars if he will pick the old man up and take him on a one-way trip to a remote mountaintop in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains 10 days hence.
Why exactly would this old man want to take a one-way trip to a cliff face in the middle of nowhere? The only answer seems to be he’s planning on killing himself. Solo immediately susses this out and tries to reject William’s offer. A quick pep talk has no discernible effect on William, though, so Solo accepts a down payment for the trip.
Over the course of the next week and a half, Solo does his best to insinuate himself on William’s life. Like the viewers, he’s trying to figure out what this guy’s story is and why he’d want to off himself. Taking on the role of guardian angel, Solo starts shuttling William to bars, pool halls, to friends’ houses—anything to cheer the old guy up. But William seems adamant in his date with destiny.
The plot for Goodbye Solo moves in very tiny circles, and Bahrani is in no hurry to peel back the layers of his characters. Goodbye Solo is as much about what is left unspoken as what is said aloud. As the film spools along at its slow and steady pace, however, the tension builds. Like Solo, we’re dying to know more about William. Despite the old fella’s gruff, grizzled, crankypants exterior, we find ourselves dreading that ever-encroaching, seemingly inevitable trip to the mountaintop. But as the story unfolds, we start to realize Solo might need this friendship as much as William. Solo’s wife, a Mexican immigrant herself, is pregnant and about to give birth. She wants Solo to stick around North Carolina and maybe buy his own cab. Solo, however, dreams of improving his lot in life. He’s studying to take the flight attendant’s exam. It’s a much loftier career than cab driver, but it would take him away from his new family. Despite his happy-go-lucky attitude, Solo doesn’t seem to have any real friends with which he can share these woes.
Bahrani, the son of Iranian immigrants, has a special eye for people’s loneliness and isolation. He draws some delicate parallels between the elderly—separated from friends and family by time and death—and the immigrant community—segregated from friends and family by oceans and economy. If you wanted to, you could easily look at the film from a philosophical angle. No doubt you’d find a great many deeper levels of meaning to Goodbye Solo. But the film doesn’t beg for symbolic interpretation. It’s simple, straightforward, stripped-to-the-walls human drama.
Like a lot of these tiny, slice-of-real-life indie film examinations, Goodbye Solo doesn’t wrap things up with a great deal of finality. Plenty of questions linger. But that’s the power of a film like this. The emotions tend to stick with you long after the credits roll. Original, profound and quietly heartbreaking, Goodbye Solo may be exactly what overstimulated moviegoing audiences need right now.