'Goodbye Solo," the latest from filmmaker and Winston-Salem native Ramin Bahrani, is basically about what happens when one wants to be left alone. As always, it's the things you want that you never get.
This appears to be the case for William (Red West), an old man who wants nothing but to leave this earth in peace. Unfortunately, he has the misfortune (or fortune -- however you look at it) of meeting Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a Senegalese cab driver who picks up William and barges into his world when William offers him money to drive him to Blowing Rock, so he can complete his task.
Although William doesn't tell Solo what he'll be doing once he gets to the Rock, the inquisitive (not to mention nosy) Solo figures this out. And it seems the thought of this old joe offing himself is too much to bear for the extroverted and optimistic Solo. In his remaining days with William, Solo lets him stay in his home with his pregnant, Mexican wife (Carmen Leyva) and stepdaughter (a too-cute-for-words Diana Franco Galindo), and then even bunks in William's motel room when Solo's having trouble with the Missus.
Solo's determination to find out why this man, whom he barely knows, wants to commit suicide borders between being intrusive and just plain obsessive. Could Solo be worried that the bitter, quietly regretful William could be what he has to look forward to in his later years, so he gives William reasons to live while, at the same time, working to become a better husband and father? Or does Solo just want to help this lonely old man because, well, that's the decent, human thing to do?
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Filmed in Winston-Salem, "Solo" is a simplistic movie, so simplistic that there wouldn't be much of a story if Solo minded his business and kept his mind on the road. (There may be some cranks out there who would've much preferred Bahrani made that movie.) While watching "Solo," I couldn't help thinking that the plot (scripted by Bahrani and "Chop Shop" collaborator Bahareh Azimi) could be easily made as a screwball buddy comedy, especially considering that the character of Solo is the kind of motormouthed comic nuisance that's reminiscent of every character Chris Tucker has ever played -- except not as high-pitched. Lighthearted moments aside (William and Solo shooting pool, bonding over Hank Williams and reveling in the wonders that are camera phones), "Solo" is a mostly straight-faced affair.
While Bahrani's previous work ("Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop") has been hailed for its grungy, meticulously staged naturalism, "Solo" is more poised and polished - and for good reason. Bahrani takes his sweet time in capturing his surroundings -- from the scenic highways to the melting pot of people who now make up the city's general population -- for this is his home, and Bahrani wants the viewer to appreciate it the same way he does. You could even go as far as to say that Solo is a stand-in for Bahrani himself, attempting to open William's (and our) eyes to this crazy, wonderful world, before he/we ultimately write it off.
Just as in his other movies, Bahrani shows talent for finding actors who can effectively look and act so much like, well, people. The fact that he found West (aka the Red from Elvis Presley's notorious Memphis Mafia) to play William, complete with gruff, grizzled sadness, is nothing short of fascinating. As for the title character, former Senegalese model (and dead ringer for the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA) Savane manages to pull off both sympathy and gravitas, an achievement for a character you may wish would just keep quiet during some scenes.
It seems fitting that "Solo" is opening on the same day as that other geriatric, soul-searching journey, "Up." Both are quite uplifting, but one will leave you with an instant smile, while another will make you feel glad there is some light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
Take a guess which category "Goodbye Solo" falls under.