May 1, 2009

REVIEW: Goodbye Solo (A-)

"A Pakistani guy, a couple of Hispanic kids, a Senegalese guy, even William, who feels even more like an outsider in Winston-Salem than Solo—that’s a huge part of the meaning. These are three American films by an American director named, Ramin Bah-what? Starring who? Yeah, these are three American films starring three American people made by an American guy. And if you don’t believe it, look at the last election."

- Ramin Bahrani in an interview in Reverse Shot, Issue 23

Despite the general consensus that "change" in America arrived on January 20th, 2009, Ramin Bahrani has done his best in Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and now Goodbye Solo to show us that change actually arrived quite a while ago, not evidenced by the person in the White House but the person in the house down the block from you. He's attempted to expose us to the "new" America, the immigrant America, the Bahrani America, and insofar as I'm the only member of my family born here, my America, too.

That's one way to look at Bahrani's films, and it can lead to effusive, perhaps blindingly positive praise on my part, or wary, perhaps unfair charges of "immigrant chic" on the part of others (I really appreciated the conversation, Fox). To the extent that Goodbye Solo is made in the same general style as his last two films and showcases the same general characters, the same general praise and criticism may be applied.

But I think another way to view Bahrani's films, particularly Goodbye Solo, is to remove the immigrant factor and simply examine the relationships between the characters (which Bahrani himself did for nearly an hour following its premiere at the Walker on April 3rd, and then even longer to the people who wanted to personally chat with him). The relationships in Goodbye Solo are unlikely and unbelievable until you realize, on further examination, that they are completely likely and surprisingly believable. Yes
, Bahrani again finds hope in the bleakness that many filmmakers celebrate, but what's so great about bleakness anyway?

Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane, nicknamed "Solo" in real life) is a Senegalese cab driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (Bahrani's hometown). From his incessant chattering, scanning eyes, and flirtatious banter with the cab dispatcher, we know that he is a lively, spontaneous, happy-go-lucky guy: a male version of Poppy Cross, as well as the stereotypical foreign-accented cabbie who never knows when to shut up. When he picks up a fare in the form of an obviously suicidal grouch named William (Red West), Solo finds himself flustered to the point of desperation; he'll do and sacrifice anything to persuade his new friend to change his plans. On the surface, this friendship between starry-eyed immigrant and cantankerous misanthrope is right out of Gran Torino. It's a spin-off, the parallel story of Walt Kowalski's war buddy who lives in North Carolina.

But William is not Walt, and Solo is not Thao, and while this relationship is also one based on protection, there's more maturity, intimacy, and respect developing under the surface. The two characters still learn the typical lessons from each other about the importance of family and yada yada yada, but it's window dressing for a story that's essentially about people looking for reasons to live, and ways of living. Over the course of several weeks, Solo has to learn to accept William's plan (for practical purposes as much as anything else since he's supposed to drive him to the jump-off point at Blowing Rock), and William has to learn to accept Solo's care and comfort. They complement each other because they know that the other one has something they don't; Solo experiences William's freedom and independence, William experiences Solo's family. Neither of them know how to access these things without each other.

Ramin Bahrani talked a lot about love in the discussion following Goodbye Solo, particularly how love means giving people permission to make their own decision even if you don't agree with them. That's a nice sentiment and it's well established in the film, but it's not the primary reason I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because, as A.O. Scott lucidly noted last month, "these people and their situations are nonetheless recognizable, familiar on a basic human level even if their particular predicaments are not."

It's that idea of understanding through vicarious living that inspires me, both between the characters in the film and between the viewers and the characters. The originality and purpose of Bahrani's style can be argued, but I think his motives are pure, his films are honest, and, as evidenced by Goodbye Solo, his voice is consistently refreshing.

Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 4
Social Significance - 5

Total: 46/50= 92% = A-


  1. A fine review of a flick by someone I want to get to know better. I enjoyed the discussion over at Fox's, btw, and I thought you held up your end well.

  2. Thanks, Rick, and your thoughts on that discussion would have been interesting as well since you have an interest in this style of filmmaking, or so I've gathered. Maybe next time.

    I recommend all three of Bahrani's films, if I haven't made that clear here.


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