“Goodbye Solo” would have turned out a very different film had it been made in Hollywood.
The film would have focused on the meeting of two abstractions instead of the reluctant friendship of two individuals. The Senegalese cab driver and the Hank Williams-loving old white man would have shouted racial epithets at each other and debated the meaning of the American dream before tearfully embracing each other at the end.
There are few cliches in this spare and affecting film, though. The young independent filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has crafted a careful and subtle movie about both the promise and despair of life that’s told mainly in the faces of its two very different leads.
The plot, such as it is, is set into motion in the same unshowy way we learn about the characters. Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) picks up the elderly William (Red West) one night in Winston-Salem, N.C. As the cabbie drives to a cinema, the fare offers him a deal. He’ll pay Solo $1,000 to drive him to Blowing Rock in a few weeks’ time. The friendly Solo wants to know why he plans to visit the mountain. Is he going for the beauty of the place? To watch birds? To jump off?
The pained expression on William’s face at that last, joking suggestion tells Solo all he needs to know.
The insistently optimistic Solo can’t believe anyone would want to leave this good Earth. He insinuates himself into William’s life and tries to understand what led the old man to such a crossroads. The gruff William is reluctant, to say the least, and actually angry when Solo delves too deep. Yet a tentative friendship between the two blooms in the arid desert of William’s unhappy life.
Solo is certain that William, whom he calls “Big Dog,” has stories to tell. When he discovers, working on his beat-up cab, that William once drove a Harley, he can just imagine his life: “Open road, women, biker bars. You have a tattoo, right?” Of course he does.
That’s one of the only things we do learn about William. He’s no less a fleshed out character for that, though. Mr. West is a legend, a bodyguard for his friend Elvis Presley and a longtime stuntman. There are depths in his wrinkled face.
Solo, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve, and it’s one big heart, although one that won’t simply take what comes. Solo leaves his Mexican wife, for example, when she angrily demands he give up his dream of becoming a flight attendant. She wants him to stay put to look after his soon-to-be-born child and the stepdaughter he loves as his own.
Mr. Savane has never acted before, and there’s a wonderful freshness he brings to this character whose constant smile proves infectious, if not to William, then at least to the viewer who understands something the lost William cannot.
TITLE: “Goodbye Solo”
RATING: Not rated (adult language)
CREDITS: Directed and edited by Ramin Bahrani. Written by Bahareh Azimi and Mr. Bahrani.
RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes