Good fare: Ramin Bahrani's "Goodbye Solo" opens this week in the Bay Area.

Bahrani Earns Ebert's Praise for "Goodbye Solo"

Dennis Harvey April 17, 2009

While short-attention-span editing, comic book-derived content and crass commercialism have been dumb-sizing audiences for years, a few U.S. filmmakers are now conspicuously moving in the opposite direction entirely. And some viewers are actually welcoming the change. Their box-office numbers might not underwrite much more than the craft service, driver and personal assistant budgets on the average CGI-dominated Hollywood sequel, but movies by Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor) and even those mumblecore types have won more than just critical acclaim. They seem to speak to audiences who not only respond to intimate, unflashy character studies of very ordinary people, but seem outright relieved by an aesthetic whose pacing doesn’t risk triggering an epileptic attack.

One of the newest and most notable practitioners of this stripped-down filmic and narrative style is Ramin Bahrani, the Iranian American filmmaker whose features Man Push Cart and Chop Shop were minimalist slices of modern working-class life in a classic neorealist tradition, authentic and almost invisibly crafted. His latest prompted kingmaker Roger Ebert to pronounce Bahrani "the new great American director" a couple weeks ago. While we’re not going to stick our necks out that far—at least not yet—Goodbye Solo is definitely the writer-helmer’s most accessible work to date, one that might very well provide him with an arthouse breakthrough.

Its setup is very simple, and entirely laid out in the first scene. Solo (Soulemane Sy Savane) is an ebullient Senegalese immigrant whose taxi is currently occupied by William (Red West). They’ve hashed out a deal: Solo will get a substantial sum of cash for driving William an unusual distance several days hence. Yet that arrangement already seems in danger of collapsing, as the very gruff, 70ish older man bridles under the nosy inquiries of his incessantly chatterboxing chauffeur.

Solo can’t help it; he’s as much a borderline-irksome extrovert as William is a cranky introvert. The former’s probings are only heightened by his suspicion that the upcoming trip—taking William to North Carolina tourist spot Blowing Rock some 80 miles west—will be William’s last, with the old guy intending to end his life at a natural monument of some unspoken personal significance. (Blowing Rock, long a mountain resort destination for North Carolinians escaping the summer heat, is named after a rock formation situated such that objects thrown from it get thrust upward by wind. Legend has it that the Great Spirit once reunited Romeo & Juliet-type tribal lovers by "blowing" the lad back from a death leap into his lady’s arms.)

Despite their oil-and-water dynamic, Solo insists on treating William as "one of my preferred clients," hauling him around on the retiree’s rounds of movies, motel rooms and drinking binges. The senior is reluctantly yanked into the orbit of Solo’s messy personal life, which encompasses a fed-up Latin American girlfriend (Carmen Leyva as Quiera) who’s pregnant with his child, her precocious 9-year-old daughter by a prior union (Diana Franco Galindo as Alex), and various variably reputable pals, one of whom gets them all chased by gangbangers after some probably-illegal transaction.

William doesn’t seem to have any family himself, and certainly doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s constantly driven to the brink of rage—or over it—by open-book Solo’s attempted pryings into his tightly guarded privacy. Yet he grudgingly allows it when Solo "temporarily" moves out of Quiera’s house and announces he’ll stay in the taciturn senior’s motel room, allegedly to focus on studying for a flight-attendant exam.

This odd couple requires a considerable suspension of disbelief: As such clearly defined opposites, both lead characters are off-putting in their way—Solo ingratiating to the point of exhaustion, William the grumpiest of old men. It’s a little hard to swallow that they don’t give up on each other immediately, or on any of myriad head-butting occasions later. But to the credit of Bahrani (who shot Goodbye Solo in his native burg of Winston-Salem), his co-writer Baharez Azimi and their actors, that dynamic ultimately does work, culminating in a powerful final segment whose gravitas owes no small debt to the fact that Solo at last discovers a reason to shut up.

A screen natural, Savane is an actual former flight attendant as well as a model and African TV star who will be new to Western viewers. If Red West looks vaguely familiar, no wonder: He’s a 50-year veteran of mostly smaller parts on the big and small screen, including everything from The A-Team to Natural Born Killers and recent indie drama 40 Shades of Blue. That latter, set amongst veterans of the Memphis music scene, must have struck home, since West was a high school friend of Elvis who became his bodyguard, a member of his fabled "Memphis Mafia," and songwriter not just for the King but other artists like Johnny Rivers and Ricky Nelson.

There must be a lot of high times and low to recall from that personal history, located in a South (and Hollywood) drastically different from today’s version. One can read Goodbye Solo as a tacit commentary on played-out, cranky, old-school generations passing unquietly into the night as a new, unrecognizable one—multicultural, multilingual, in fresh pursuit of the "American Dream"—changes the landscape. Or you can just take it as a gracefully crafted dual character study dominated by two performances that could hardly be bettered.