Goodbye Solo

September, 2009, Drama

Directed by:Ramin Bahrani

Starring:Souléymane Sy Savané and Red West

Independent filmmakers have had a rough time of it lately; young audiences, (the prime market for today’s new releases) apparently aren’t willing to risk scare pocket money to see a film without violence, gossip-generating Hollywood stars or gross-out, frat-house style comedy. As a result, far too few small, inexpensive films are being made at present and of those, distribution to a wide audience is nearly impossible to secure.

All of which makes this stunning film a perfect choice for your next DVD rental; if you take the time to find it on Netflix or at your local rental store, you’ll be rewarded with one of the finest movies I’ve seen this year - or any year for that matter. Shot on location in Winston-Salem North Carolina with a cast of newcomers and a character actor you’ve seen repeatedly without ever being consciously aware of him, this thoughtful meditation on the pain of human isolation vs. the blessing of deep connection to others draws its viewers through a series of small but beautifully detailed incidents leading ineluctably to a climax  which features a towering visual depiction of the ineffable, in the process delivering one of the most complex, nuanced analyses of self-absorption ever to grace movie theaters.

Newcomer Souleymane Sy Savane, in his first full-length role, plays Solo, a Senegalese immigrant driving a hack in Winston-Salem, tobacco’s home town. One night he picks up a tired, aging, white man named William who makes a strange request; he wants Solo to drive him to Blowing Rock State Park 10 days hence…and leave him there. Solo, an irresponsible but ebullient man with a face-splitting grin and great zest for life, grasps the situation immediately; William wants to be driven to his suicide. Repulsed by his fare’s request and unwilling to either participate in the scheme or fob William off on someone else, the cabbie attempts to draw his irascible, short-tempered passenger into Solo’s world. With little to absorb his time over the next week and a half before his carefully planned death, the taciturn, profane William allows himself to be drawn into Solo’s vibrant life, getting introduced in turn to Solo’s very pregnant Hispanic girlfriend, her sharp-tongued but perceptive 10 year-old daughter Quiera and his fellow hackies. Solo even enlists William’s assistance in studying for a cram course the voluble immigrant is taking to qualify for his life’s ambition; becoming an airline flight attendant. But William remains impervious to his new friend’s inviting blandishments save for a paternal interest in a handsome young man selling tickets at a downtown movie theater…

The days slip quickly by and William still insists on going through with his trip to Blowing Rock, where, defying gravity itself, the prevailing winds can take light objects thrown from its craggy loft high into the skies above the Great Smoky Mountains. In an effort to dissuade William from his commitment to self-destruction, Solo insists that Quiera accompany them, hoping that the presence of the innocent young girl to whom he’s become attached will shame William into reassessing his plan. What occurs in the film’s last, nearly wordless 10 minutes lyrically captures the gulf between a thirst for life and the bottomless despair which can make taking one’s life appear to be the only palatable way to assure freedom from its constant pressures.

Savane’s incandescent performance provides a character so full of vitality it’s easy to see why, despite his many faults, people are drawn to him as surely and immediately as a magnet draws iron filings. With the wide-eyed optimism of an irrepressible adolescent, Solo gallops through life, frequently oblivious to its responsibilities, but constantly beaming with the sheer joy of living. It’s a wonderful performance, as apparently effortless as it is totally seductive. The actor makes Solo a true force of nature.

Not to be outdone, character actor Red West, (a bit player in over a dozen Elvis Presley movies and countless episodes of various television action series) provides a riveting portrait of a man unafraid to look at his failures and conclude that the only sensible next step in life is to end it. Sporting a haggard face ruined by the pains he’s endured and speaking in the flat, uninflected tones of America’s Piedmont region, West creates a tantalizing portrait of astounding blue collar dignity and personal depth, as hauntingly attractive as he is depressingly bent on self-obliteration. West’s 80+ previous screen roles provide no hint whatsoever of the sensitivity he brings to the lonely, tormented William; there will be no artistic justice in the movie business if both he and Savane’s work aren’t properly recognized when next year’s awards season rolls around.

The director responsible for this low-budget gem is one Ramin Bahrani, a 34 year-old North Carolina native whose two previous films, (Man Push Cart & Chop Shop) have examined immigrant life in New York City. Both films, modest in cost and technical execution but brimming with authenticity and a bracing candor about the life of America’s poor, have garnered Bahrani a number of critic’s awards; Solo will surely add to his already impressive resume. When will one of the major studios wake up and give this brilliant filmmaker (who also writes or co-writes his own scripts) a chance to make a mainstream movie that will allow a much wider audience of moviegoers the opportunity to benefit from his abundant talents?  

Good Bye Solo is not without its challenges: the storyline is dumped on the audience without preamble in the film’s opening scene, Solo’s Senegalese accent makes his lines often indecipherable, the mundane incidents in Solo’s life to which William is exposed provide little in the way of dramatic impact, and the reasons for William’s desire for obliteration are never made clear, but a patient ear and attention to the director’s ability to fashion a pair of intimately personal characters makes the film’s 91-minute running time well worth the effort. The craft elements of the movie, (set-design, costumes & camerawork) are as plain as a split-rail fence, but they faithfully serve Bahrani’s argument that each life, however humble, posses value too great to waste.

The Verdict? A small, near-perfect gem that will resonate with - - and haunt - - those fortunate enough to see it. 

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