In his prominent corner of the burgeoning cinematic movement that A.O. Scott recently dubbed neo-neo realism the Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani is achieving something unmatched by his peers. Not only is he, in the best tradition of predecessors like Vittorio De Sica, making movies that empathetically depict real people facing real challenges in their unglamorous lives, he’s enhancing those stories with authorial, cinematic doses of humor, sadness and insight. To describe Goodbye Solo, which opens in limited release today, as just the story of the friendship between a cab driver and an elderly client is to fail to do justice to the scope of Bahrani’s directorial voice.
The film is about the bonds that connect us across the lines that divide us, no matter how entrenched and deeply rooted those lines might be. It brings together unlikely counterparts Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a Senegalese immigrant working as a taxi driver in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and a lonely old man named William (Red West), after the latter gets in his cab and offers him a lump sum to be driven in two weeks’ time to Blowing Rock, a mythical locale in the Blue Ridge Mountains wherein the wind blows objects skyward. At its core, in depicting the strong mutual affection that forms between these two mismatched souls, the film explores the challenges in truly connecting with another human and the ways so doing can affect one’s sense of self.
Bahrani rises above the realist surface trappings by imbuing the narrative with metaphysical overtones and remaining persistently focused on the emotional heart of the story. The otherworldly specter of Blowing Rock, and all that it signifies, looms over the picture. It attains added significance as things wear on and Solo wrestles with the burden placed on him by William, who never intends to leave the place after being left there. As the two weeks pass, the weight of the words left unsaid looms large. The gregarious Solo sets about charming William, trying desperately to convince him to salvage some hope in his life, only to be repeatedly pushed away. Steely eyed and roughshod, William won’t offer him any insight into the source of his burdens. His heart and soul have been sublimated beneath too much grief for that. Solo, a good man, must therefore reconsider his deeply held notions of the proper ways to express the kindness and compassion that comes so naturally to him.
Their scenes in the cab, which rely heavily on close-ups, shadows and the clear divide between the front and the back seats underscore the complicated dynamic at play. William’s desire to drift away, to spend his last two weeks tying up loose ends before disappearing is reflected in his reluctance to engage the enthused banter coming from the man behind the wheel. Bahrani and director of photography Michael Simmonds keep the camera trained on the faces of the actors throughout most of the picture. Savane is therefore well equipped to convey Solo’s increasing desperation without speaking, while the wrinkles and baggy eyes that demarcate West’s sad visage powerfully speak for themselves.
These actors, the first professionals Bahrani has worked with in a major capacity (the leads of Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, his prior two films, were amateurs) have been ideally cast. Bahrani prefers to operate at a still, unhurried pace, marked by a refusal to overemphasize the camerawork, which gives the actors ample room to expand on their portraits. Savane, appearing in his first movie, exudes charisma as the fast-talking, friendly Solo and shows off an impressive grasp of internalization techniques as the character continues losing his quest to dissuade William from his journey. West, once part of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia and a frequent presence in the worlds of film, television and music ever since summarizes a lifetime of experiences in a performance reliant solely on reactions, expressions and the sounds of the silences between others’ spoken words.
Goodbye Solo touches on what have become Bahrani’s characteristic themes, such as the frailties of the American Dream and its continued potency in the 21st century immigrant communities that operate like satellites orbiting a made, wealthy center. It’s an illuminating, refreshingly normal look at a man who works for a living, seen without condescension or haughty scorn. But what really sets the picture apart and makes it an achievement worth remembering is its transcendent faith in what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” as personified in the relationship formed between Solo and William as the latter heads towards his final resting place.