By Alan Scherstuhl
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Carolina Del Busto
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Kevin Dilmore
By New Times
By Amy Nicholson
As William, a taciturn senior who seems to be planning for his final days, West takes center stage in Goodbye Solo, the third feature co-written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, who, at 34, has quietly emerged as one of the major figures in the American independent film scene. Bahrani's two previous films, the excellent Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007), were tightly wound, location-specific character studies, heavily influenced by the work of the Dardenne brothers, but with their own unfettered eye for immigrant workers living hand-to-mouth on the margins of New York City society. With Goodbye Solo, Bahrani broadens his focus — or at least shifts it south — to his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His fundamental interest, however, remains unseen people, or people we might see and never think twice about: the push-cart vendor who sells us our morning coffee; the motherless youth handing out estimates at a Queens body shop; an old man who wishes to die without leaving so much as a trace. Among the emerging generation of American filmmakers, he is one of the few (along with Wendy and Lucy's Kelly Reichardt and the Half Nelson team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden) who possesses a disciplined sense of composition and form, a vision of the world that extends beyond the boundaries of his own navel, and the understanding that it is possible to make films about class and race in this country without pandering to the audience.
What's consistently remarkable about Bahrani's work is his steadfast refusal to peddle cheap sentiment, or to mine for hope where there is none to be found. His favored locations are urban streets and businesses that emphasize his characters' sense of displacement, the notion that home is something enjoyed by other people. And while all his films to date deal, to some extent, with entrepreneurial endeavors, it is not riches that Bahrani's ragged protagonists seek, but merely a finer quality of rags. In Goodbye Solo, the small-scale social climber is the title character (excellent newcomer Souléymane Sy Savané), a Senegalese-born taxi driver who cruises the nighttime streets of Winston-Salem while training for a future career as a flight attendant, despite the disapproval of his pregnant Mexican wife (Carmen Leyva), who wants him close to home. A chatty Solo picks up William as a fare but finds his irrepressible good cheer lost on his passenger, who wants only to be dropped off at a nearby movie theater and picked up two hours later. Then William adds one more request: On a specified date in the near future, he wants the cabbie to drive him to the top of a local mountain, Blowing Rock, and leave him there — no questions asked.
In its premise and its many long driving scenes, Goodbye Solo seems guaranteed to earn comparisons to Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's 1997 masterpiece Taste of Cherry, in which a similarly suicidal man drives the streets of Tehran seeking a volunteer to throw dirt on his freshly dug grave. But while Bahrani is undoubtedly indebted to Kiarostami — and, as remakes go, this sort of thing is eminently preferable to Hollywood's countless repackagings — the connection between the two films is less significant than it first appears. Whereas Kiarostami's driver and passengers remained isolated from one another in both formal and human terms, Goodbye Solo is ultimately about the fragile but profound friendship that forms between these men as Solo becomes, in effect, William's funerary chauffeur. The more the driver tries to discern some meaningful details about his passenger's life, the more William retreats. So, too, does Bahrani hold his characters at some enigmatic distance from the audience, refusing to reveal all their secrets, mindful of the foolish notion that it is possible to truly "know" another person after 90 minutes of screen time. Finally, as at the end of every Bahrani film, we arrive at a place where a few poetic images say more than any words or facts possibly could: Dawn breaks, a car disappears into the morning mist, and life goes on.
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