Movie Review: Goodbye Solo
By Michael Phillips, Tribune Movie Critic
It's a fleeting shot of a convenience mart, and it could be in any town in America. The name carries a whiff of poetic grandiosity: "Great American Food Store." Who runs this place? An immigrant from which country? This one? A hundred others?
We never find out. The storefront is onscreen a few seconds, simply one more stop in another night in the life of a Senegalese taxi driver, Solo, who lives and works in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Goodbye Solo" is the third feature - eloquent and very moving - from writer-director Ramin Bahrani, following "Man Push Cart" (2005) and "Chop Shop" (2007). He continues to build a remarkable career in independent cinema.
While his newest work gravitates toward a simple pair of character studies, more studied in their storytelling technique than Bahrani's previous works, all three films bring a genuine decency to the screen, and I don't mean the kind of humanist decency that essentially kills off your interest in what's happening. His movies work as movies. They are rich slices of immigrant life. A Pakistani's coffee cart in Manhattan; a Latino brother and sister's bruising, breathless existence in the "Iron Triangle" auto body strip near Shea Stadium; a Senegalese cabbie studying to become a flight attendant and negotiating his role as husband and father: These are Bahrani's subjects, and they contain multitudes.
"Goodbye Solo" puts together two people who have little in common. Solo, played by Souleymane Sy Savane, is a highly sociable motormouth with a smile bright enough to warm your hands. One night, behind the wheel of his employer's cab, he picks up a tough, sad old bird played by former Elvis Presley bodyguard and Presley confidant Red West. The character, William, slips Solo $100 as a deposit on a trip he plans to take in two weeks, way out to a place called Blowing Rock along the Blue Ridge Parkway. William is closing out his accounts, settling what little he has to settle. To what end?
Solo, whose wife (Carmen Leyva) has a 9-year-old daughter (Diana Franco Galindo) from a previous relationship, sees William as a man in need of a friend. Night after night Solo drives William to a movie theater, where he sees William make small talk with the young man working the box office. Solo gives William his couch one night after too many drinks together. Then, having moved into a motel, William finds Solo knocking on his door after his wife turns him out.
The motif in "Goodbye Solo" is that of flight, and Bahrani and co-writer Bahareh Azimi work the theme pretty hard. As Solo studies for his flight attendant exam, William is thinking about another kind of leap into the unknown. Like Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor," or Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River," the intertwining lives we see in "Goodbye Solo" reflect different American stories, along with a dash of well-made-play tidiness. But the acting's so true, and Bahrani's so observant, you find yourself caring about everyone onscreen.
Bahrani's cinematographer Michael Simmonds brings out the gently decaying beauty in the streets of Winston-Salem. I'm not sure what it would take for Bahrani to reach the audience he deserves, but making one good film after another can't hurt.
No MPAA rating; parents cautioned for some language.
Running time: 1:31.
Starring: Souleymane Sy Savane (Solo); Red West (William); Diana Franco Galindo (Alex); Carmen Leyva (Quiera).
Directed by Ramin Bahrani; written by Bahareh Azimi and Bahrani; produced by Jason Orans and Bahrani. A Roadside Attractions release.