Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Starring Souléymane Sy Savané,
Red West and Diana Franco Galindo
Goes well with: Leaving Las Vegas, Man Push Cart, You Can Count on Me
Ramin Bahrani might be the best filmmaker you've never heard of. He has released three films in the last four years, including his latest effort, Goodbye Solo. All of them are intelligent and introspective, well-shot and brimming with easily accessible emotion. And each is about characters who are immigrants or minorities, existing on what might be considered the fringes of society. But none of them is a fringe character. Even though many of his actors are non-professionals, they create very real people who are vibrant and alive and often struggling. Happy at times, miserable at others, they are never products of their circumstances but, rather, individuals just trying to make the most out of the hand that life has dealt them.
Though his first two films, Man Push Cart (about a former Pakistani rock star now selling coffee and donuts) and Chop Shop (about a young Latino boy working in a garage) were set in New York, where Bahrani got his college degree, Goodbye Solo takes place in his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C. It's there that we find Souléymane (Sy Savané), aka Solo, a Senegalese cab driver who delivers a steady stream of patter and patois to his fares. This includes William (Red West), an older white man with sad, milky, tired eyes and a filthy mouth. It's not so much that he dislikes Solo because he's black—he just dislikes everyone. He's a bitter, angry old man shouldering a history of regret, which he takes out on anyone who asks him—well, anything. Solo regularly takes him to and from a movie theater, where William has one of his few rare human encounters, buying a ticket from the kid behind the window.
That's all good. Solo's a cabbie, so he gets his fair share of abuse. He can take what William dishes out, but when the old man offers him $1,000 to drive him up to the top of a mountain—a one-way trip—on a specific date, Solo becomes concerned. And it's there, as Solo insinuates himself in William's affairs, that their relationship—to call it a friendship would be disingenuous—begins.
Like all Brahmin's characters, Solo is no stereotype. He's married, to a pregnant Mexican woman, and he's the stepfather to her precocious daughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo). He's very good at driving the cab, but he doesn't like it. He's studying to become a flight attendant, a fact that's causing strife in his marriage. Sy Savané, an amateur actor, is absolutely a natural. He's charming and fun but also turns Solo into an extremely sensitive man. His constant smile masks the hurt and the stress he feels between his imminent fatherhood, his pissed-off wife and the general crap he takes from William.
William, on the other hand, rarely softens to Solo's outreach, but when he does, it's not with words. It's more that he just doesn't complain when the other man is around. In fact, one of the things that makes this film work so well is that much of it is about what isn't said and what the characters cannot bring themselves to say. West, and old-school stuntman and a former bodyguard and close friend to Elvis, is pitch-perfect as William. He doesn't say much, but he communicates plenty, playing a man who has decided that his time is done, and to hell with anyone who wants to say otherwise. He is at his own end, and Solo knows it, and at a certain point Solo has to determine what doing the right thing actually means.
Solo is an immigrant, but that fact doesn't play into who Solo essentially is: a decent person working hard to be good and suffering because of it. And though the movie's title is never actually uttered, we understand exactly what it means, as Goodbye Solo is a minor heartbreaker and another triumph for one of the country's best young filmmakers.