Remember this name: Ramin Bahrani.
A Winston-Salem native, Bahrani is a screenwriter and director who, at the relatively tender age of 34, has three spectacular feature films under his belt. Bahrani makes movies that are decidedly artsy and "noncommercial" but nevertheless deeply engaging, accessible and, yes, entertaining. This year, Bahrani was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and he was recently anointed by film critic Roger Ebert "the new great American director."
Bahrani's previous films, "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop," received effusive critical praise despite their limited distribution in the U.S. (Bahrani's first feature, "Strangers," played only a handful of festivals and is unavailable on DVD). His latest film, " Goodbye Solo," new to DVD this week, is his best yet and has already lodged itself in my personal Top Ten list for 2009.
The story begins abruptly, in a taxi in Winston-Salem, as the passenger and driver negotiate terms for a mysterious deal. William (Red West), the old man in the back seat, wants to pay the driver $1,000 to schedule a one-way trip to Blowing Rock, the Carolina hiking destination about two hours outside the Triad. The old man has a face that suggests decades of hard living. His manner is brusque, and his eyes are just this side of dead.
The driver, Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), agrees but is wary. An immigrant from Senegal, Solo is almost aggressively affable -- quick to smile and genuinely interested in meeting and helping everyone he comes across. Solo practically radiates joie de vivre, but he senses something amiss with this bargain. Why does William want this one-way trip?
The rest of the movie tracks these two as their lives become intertwined. It is intelligent and alert in a way that might remind you of Martin Scorsese's early work. Each scene is meticulously composed -- I wouldn't mind printing and mounting some still frames from this DVD -- yet the film flows so organically that it's hard to imagine there's a script underneath it all.
Watch "Goodbye Solo" and you'll soon become aware that you're experiencing something special. Bahrani is the real deal, and "Solo" will linger in your thoughts for days. I only wish that the DVD included behind-the-scenes material. Then again, sometimes it's better this way.
Also new to DVD this week, " Sunshine Cleaning" is a charming offbeat comedy from the producers of "Little Miss Sunshine," who clearly would like you to associate their new dysfunctional family movie with the wild success of the original "Sunshine." They've even helpfully cast Alan Arkin again, in a conspicuously similar role.
Emily Blunt and Amy Adams play sisters who start their own business, cleaning up after crime scenes and suicides. Adams' character is a single mom, trying her best to remain cheerful and organized despite her desperate financial circumstances. Blunt's character is more damaged, unable to hold down a job and living at home with Dad (Arkin).
"Sunshine Cleaning" is much funnier than you would expect and has moments of touching insight regarding family, sisterhood, loss and hope. Emily Blunt suggests worlds of hurt beneath her heavily mascara'd eyes, and she has one scene under a railroad trestle that just might break your heart.
It all works just fine, though the tonal shifts can be jarring as the movie tries too hard to be quirky in that Sundance indie sort of way. Check the extras for interesting details on getting into the crime scene cleanup line of work.
Finally this week, " Adventureland" stars Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg in yet another post-collegiate coming-of-age story, falling somewhere between the giddy inventiveness of "500 Days of Summer" and the lockstep formulism of "Post Grad."
Stewart and Eisenberg play attractive 20-somethings killing a summer in dead-end jobs at the local run-down amusement park. Set in the 1980s, the movie has a nice sense of place and time, and viewers of the Gen X persuasion will enjoy the details embedded in the production design, costuming and soundtrack.
Plenty of good jokes and engaging supporting cast work will help you forget Kristen Stewart's limited dramatic range of sullen and sullener. I suspect she has a cheat sheet written on the back of hand, for when she's required to provide reaction shots: "Wrinkle brow. Look at feet. Fiddle with hair. Repeat."