In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, cheerful Senegalese taxi driver Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) picks up William (Red West, "Natural Born Killers," "Cookie's Fortune"), a world weary old Southerner who asks if the cabbie will drive him to Blowing Rock at a future date for the fare of $1,000. Solo takes an interest in the old man, arranging to always be his driver and trying to change William's outlook so that he will not have to hear the words "Goodbye Solo."
With his third feature, cowriter (with Bahareh Azimi, "Chop Shop")/editor/director Ramin Bahrani proves he is a filmmaker of grace. This small, intimate film which celebrates the richness and diversity of Bahrani's home town, is nothing less than a study on just what makes us human and how we connect with others of our kind. Coming away from "Goodbye Solo," it is astonishing to realize just how fully we can know another person's essence with very little hard data to go on.
For example, within about thirty seconds we know that Solo is a good person we can absolutely trust. Souleymane Sy Savane, an incredibly natural and charismatic talent unearthed by Bahrani, makes Solo the embodiment of joy and curiosity and hope for the future. He's an earthbound cabbie literally dreaming of flying, studying for an airline job while preparing for the birth of his first child with Mexican girlfriend Quiera (Carmen Leyva).
Bad for Solo and good for the film - Quiera is upset when Solo invites William to spend the night with them, among other things, and no sooner has Solo moved William from his apartment to a motel, a move which is just another disturbing indicator in Solo's eyes, than Quiera's thrown him out of the house. William reluctantly allows Solo to crash in his room.
William appears to be Solo's opposite. It's pretty clear he has suicide on his mind (many have observed that "Goodbye Solo" is like an inverse version of Abbas Kiarostami's "A Taste of Cherry," in which a cab driver tried to find a fare to help him commit the act) and he is taciturn where Solo is a fountain of expression. Red West, a character actor who recalls the late, great Richard Farnsworth, also does incredible work here. He's a bit of a curmudgeon, and yet we can easily see why Solo seems so hell bent on saving the guy. West slyly allows little chinks of light to escape from William, little glimmers of what he would be like were he your friend, while stubbornly holding his cards to his chest. In the film's most moving moment, Solo finds William's diary and the words that are written there are only surprising in that William wrote them down so eloquently, not that he was thinking them.
This may all sound like a bleak march, but Bahrani's film has a lot of humor to it, not only out of Solo's discourses on how much he likes big booty and how he tries to sweet talk dispatcher Pork Chop (Jamill 'Peaches' Fowler, establishing a character through voice only as she's never seen) but in how his style is so different and so (mostly) tolerated by William. But Solo doesn't always have a wide smile on his face - it melts away whenever he must contemplate William's next move towards ending a life. There is mystery also, in just why William does some of the things he does. His incessant movie going is an odd quirk, then becomes something else when we see him taking the time to actually engage the theater's ticket seller (Trevor Metscher) in conversation, an extreme anomaly of character.
As if finding Savane wasn't enough, Bahrani has also cast Diana Franco Galindo as Alex, Quiera's daughter, an important supporting role that the newcomer pulls off as naturally as breathing. She's a fan of Solo's and spends a lot of time with him, which means she's around William a lot too, and she is often a bridge between them, another bit of human connection which Solo understands and tries to use at film's end.
Bahrani's cinematographer Michael Simmonds ("Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop") does lovely work here, showcasing Winston-Salem's older neighborhoods with a nostalgic glow while the modern part of the city is only a backdrop to Solo's cab at night, all lit up. His work inside Solo's cab (and Bahrani's editing) gets the dynamic of its occupants, who range from proper middle-aged black women to crack smokers. Blowing Rock is made mysterious and mythical (we've heard from Pork Chop that snow goes back to the sky there, the wind is so strong).
"Goodbye Solo" is a terrific film, a small independent that deserves a huge audience.
(If I have one nit to pick it is that I wanted more closure at the film's ending, an ending that oddly reminded me of "Picnic at Hanging Rock.")
Robin also gives "Goodbye Solo" an A-.
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