Goodbye Solo

Movie Information

The Story: An odd friendship grows between a cab driver from Senegal and an elderly man, centering on the older man's offer of $1,000 to be driven to Blowing Rock, N.C., on a certain date. The Lowdown: A warm and extremely human character study that never becomes clichéd or trite, and which will linger in the mind long after its final shot fades from view.
Genre: Drama
Director: Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop)
Starring: Souleymane Sy Savane, Red West, Diana Franco Galindo, Lane "Roc" Williams, Mamadou Lam
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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3 thoughts on “Goodbye Solo

  1. Ken Hanke

    we’re in the middle of recession and we need to be entertained

    That’s as may be, but it’s not really relevant to the quality of the film under consideration. There are instances where it could be and at least one case where it demonstrably was (Revolutionary Road). At the same time, I’ve seen a movie raked over the coals — Confessions of a Shopaholic — for being too frivolous for our grim times.

    we need a new scale…4.5 stars this isn’t …you need to say “as a film lover I dig this”.. for those of you needing real entertainment go see “Up” or ya Hanke.. you re cool in my book..just let us know you’ve got some weaknesses in your rating system..

    The weakness is inherent in any star rating system. If I had my way, we would do away with the system altogether. I think it unlikely that you’d actually read the review and think this was going to be light, escapist fare.

    Of course, the question of what is or isn’t entertaining is subjective at the best of times, and that needs to be born in mind. Just this week I was taken to task for not loving Wendy and Lucy by a reader who looked up the review in the archives. Now, if you want a downer, you could hardly find a bigger one than that movie. I found it neither especially deep, nor entertaining. The reader seems to have found it both. I just found it depressing, but he’s cheesed with me because I only gave it three stars. Sometimes you just can’t win.

  2. Sean Kelley

    I just saw “Goodbye Solo.” What a beautiful film. In its broad outlines, it could almost have been a formula film, but what the director and actors do with the material really does elevate it to something special.
    You say Solo reminds you of Sally Hawkins’ character from “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and while I haven’t seen that film yet, I was reminded of Bobby Cannavale’s character in “The Station Agent” (also a very good film, but not quite at the level of “Solo.”)
    It’s taken me a little while to realize how much the film affected me, but now that I have I know there are parts of it that will stay with me a long time. The last scene between Solo and William conveys so much emotion and feeling without a single word being spoken, and I can’t seem to get it out of my head. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.
    Anyway, just thought I’d put my two cents in.

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