Roger Ebert has called Winston-Salem’s Ramin Bahrani “the new great American director,” and after seeing his remarkable Goodbye, Solo, I’d at least consider the case. Once I’ve seen Bahrani’s other two features—Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007)—I might well go further than that. The truth is that Goodbye Solo is that good, and Bahrani may well be what Ebert claims. Perhaps because of the North Carolina connection, Bahrani’s name is often linked with David Gordon Green, but that’s deceptive. Though the two do share a tendency toward an unfussy, classical filmmaking style, there’s not much else to connect them. In fact, Bahrani seems to be the filmmaker we only like to believe Green is.
Viewers who are increasingly put off by the current state of independent filmmaking—which threatens to become, in some cases has become, every bit as formulaic as the mainstream filmmaking it’s supposedly reacting to—are apt to be surprised by Goodbye Solo. There are virtually none of the indie tropes we’ve come to expect. For starters, it seems that Bahrani and his cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, actually know what a tripod is and aren’t afraid to use one. You’ll find very little handheld camera here and no shaky-cam. The most notable handheld camera in the film comes near the very end and serves to actually enhance the shots. Also blessedly absent is any sense of forced qurkiness. What you have instead is a filmmaker working on a budget doing his damndest to make his film look as professional as possible.
Bahrani’s more formal approach to filmmaking technique does not, however, mean that he is by any means boring or even terribly traditional. Goodbye Solo, for example, has no setup. It opens in the middle of a scene—a conversation between a Winston-Salem cab driver, Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), and his far-from-talkative fare, William (Red West). The two men are a study in contrasts. Solo is open, friendly and inquisitive. (His character has been likened to Sally Hawkins’ Poppy from last year’s Happy-Go-Lucky and the comparison is not inapt.) We quickly get a sense of the man and his background as a Senegalese immigrant in search of the American dream and a chance to belong. William, on the other hand, is much older and speaks only when necessary. He keeps to himself and isn’t looking for a friend of any kind—or so it appears.
But William does want something. He offers Solo $1,000 to drive him to Blowing Rock on Oct. 20. What he doesn’t want is to answer any questions as to the purpose of the trip, though Solo’s guesses apparently hit home when he jokes, “You aren’t going to jump off, are you?” Considering William’s demeanor, the fact that he doesn’t answer the question, and that there’s been no mention of a return trip, it’s not hard to conclude that this is indeed his plan. Intrigued and troubled by the idea, Solo sets himself up as William’s personal driver, though it’s unclear as to whether he plans to try to talk the man out of his one-way trip or if he has a plan of any kind. It’s equally unclear if Solo even understands what he’s attempting himself, but it’s apparently in his nature to want to help his fellow man in some way.
In lesser hands, this would quickly turn into a kind of odd-couple affair, but that’s not happening here. A friendship—complex and largely inarticulate—does result, but it’s nothing like what you would probably expect. There’s no real opening up from William, and most of what Solo—and the viewer—learn about the man is pieced together in the manner of a detective story. Similarly, we—who have a slightly different vantage point than Solo—soon realize that William gives far more of himself away in his gruffness than in his rare moments of warmth. There are parallel scenes of Solo watching William outside a movie theater and William watching Solo through a kitchen window that serve to reveal the interest of each man in the other far better than most of the dialogue scenes.
I won’t give away where all this is going or the events that take it there, because mere description will give nothing of the flavor of the complexity of emotions conveyed on the screen—nor will it hint at the impact and resonance of the film’s moments of discovery. I’ll merely say that this brilliant, frequently nearly perfect character piece is a lot like its own description of Blowing Rock as a place where things fly up toward heaven. In other words, see this incredible little movie. You’ll realize you’re in the presence of something very special. Rated R for language.