Thursday, April 15, 2010

Goodbye Solo ***1/2

The first scene of "Goodbye Solo" lays out the basic premise of the movie. During a routine drive, a cab driver is asked by a frequent passenger if he can book a ride ten days later to be driven to a location from which the passenger is almost assuredly planning to commit suicide.

Although there are umpteen ways that a film can be constructed from this premise (a thriller, a Hollywood weepie, or a psychological mind-bender come to mind), this movie has no interest in indulging in cinematic conventions. The film tracks the lives of these two individuals over those days, as the cab driver tries to convince the man to not go through with his plans. That is it. And while this may not make you want to rush out to rent this film (although I would urge you to), you may want to jot down the name of this movie on a piece of a paper for that day when you are in the mood for a meditative, introspective experience.

How many films have you seen where the primary relationship is between a young immigrant cabbie and a hard-lived, burnt-around-the-edges, old man? Oh, but the richness of these two characters.

This film takes an objective eye to these two individuals and does not let up. And it is the specific details which emerge that matter. The cab-driver (the titular 'Solo') is a young Senegalese man trying to make a living in small-town North Carolina. He is the sort of person who has a way with people: friendly to a fault even with strangers, guileless, alarmingly happy at all times, and capable of talking a mile a minute. As a black immigrant, if he is aware that his feet rest on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in America, he does not seem to mind it at all. He works his night job with honesty and humor, and is trying to support his family which includes his Mexican-American spouse and her intelligent and poised teen daughter (presumably from a prior marriage). Their first child together is on its way. Solo works in his spare time to study to qualify for becoming a flight attendant. He is pushing upward for a better life -  exhausted yes, but never without a game smile on his face. So that is the cab driver, but what of the other character? The other character is somewhat of a cipher, for the audience as well as for Solo. He is a grizzled, old, Southern man, who harbors an avid aversion to human interaction. But even then, why is he giving the appearance that he is getting ready to take his own life? Is this what draws Solo to this old man, the desire to solve the mystery of what would lead a man to contemplate suicide? Or is Solo, as involved as he is with his own life, simply forced to encroach in the world of the older man to stop him from going through with his plans. The old man is as gnarled and obstinate as might be seen in a movie; alcohol and cigarettes are the closest he has to anything he is dependent on in life. Here is a man who simply wants to be left to spend his life on his own terms. Yes, he likes to go to the movies once in a while, and succumbs to the most marginal thawing when asked to spend some time with Solo's family, but beyond that, he remains confoundingly impenetrable to Solo.

This is a movie that might frustrate a particular type of viewer as a film in which nothing happens. To others, this will be one of the most unaffected, close to the ground portraits of human behavior committed to film. We seldom see this level of fidelity to the incomprehensible aspects of human nature, including what remains resolutely blurry about it, portrayed in a movie. In how far it goes, it reminded me of Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" released a few years ago. While Eastwood's film is showier and more conventional in its treatment of the material, both movies deal with an uncommon relationship between two characters, one of whom learns to accede to a fundamental choice exercised by the other, as vehemently unacceptable as it seems.

I saw the depiction of the cab-driver in 'Goodbye Solo' and could not separate actor from character. This must be one of the more difficult roles to play; if it were not for the genuine warmth of this actor (Souleymane Sy Savane), the portrayal of an endlessly congenial man would slide a hundred ways into caricature, or just plain annoyance. And Red West who plays the older man, has an unquestionably weathered demeanor about him, and it appears as if he agreed to let someone film his own life. It is not faint praise to say that a movie has found lead actors who make a scripted film seem like documentary.

The film is written and directed by the thirty-something Ramin Bahrani [whose previous well-received films 'Man Push Cart' and 'Chop Shop' are unseen by me] and he appears to be influenced by italian neorealism. Described in Wikipedia as a style of film characterized by stories set amongst the poor and working class, filmed on location, frequently using nonprofessional actors, this definition could be another way to describe 'Goodbye Solo'. There is a rigorous commitment to austerity in the making of this film. It reminded me in its purity, of last year's "Wendy and Lucy", starring Michelle Williams and directed by Kelly Reichardt.  If you leave conventional movie-going expectations at the door, 'Goodbye Solo' will be a wholly unique, and yes, fulfilling movie-watching experience.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review of this film that "wherever you live, when this movie opens, it will be the best film in town". Who am I to argue.

1 comment:

  1. Yazdi,

    very nice review. I look forward to watching this movie sometime soon.