Well-observed moments make ‘Solo’ a nice little film

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, May 7, 2009 1:55pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

“Goodbye Solo” is a nice little movie that shouldn’t be over-praised, so it doesn’t do anybody any favors to call it “almost perfect” (New York Times) or “a great American film” (Roger Ebert).

That’s way overboard. The movie’s nice, though.

In Winton-Salem, a cab driver from Senegal named Solo (played by first-time actor Souleymane Sy Savane) meets a crotchety gentleman named William (Red West). William hires Solo to drive him, later that month, on a one-way fare outside town.

He’ll give him $1,000 for his trouble.

Solo quickly suspects that William means to kill himself, and tries to talk him out of it. In fact, Solo spends the next days trying to convince William to cancel his appointment, entreaties which the grouchy old-timer rejects but endures.

That’s it for the story, which is more of an elongated sketch than an actual plot. The director, Ramin Bahrani, seems embarrassed by anything smacking of “drama” (he doesn’t even show us the conversation where William initially asks Solo to drive him), perhaps because he senses how cornball his outline is.

The director’s previous two films, “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop,” similarly gazed at street-level have-nots, and were illuminated by a strong sense of place and gritty actors (mostly nonprofessionals).

Bahrani’s talent strikes me as journalistic: He closely observes the worlds he visits (he’s actually a native of Winston-Salem) and the work habits of his characters. The way Solo must navigate the town without (apparently) owning a car himself — relying on other cabbies for favors — is a realistic, revealing touch.

But as sharp as “Goodbye Solo” is in moments, its overall theme — while supposedly disdaining Hollywood manipulations — is forced. The film’s events happen not because they’re the stuff of life but because they have to be there so Bahrani can come to the fixed, pre-determined point of his ending.

Solo’s rah-rah pestering of William borders on stalking, and becomes bearable only if you realize that he’s the only one who must learn a lesson before the ending of the picture. That ending is touching, in part because of the way Red West plays his scenes.

West is a fascinating piece of casting — you know his name if you’re an Elvis fan, because he spent years as one of Elvis’ hang-out buddies (as in, “Tell Sonny and Red to get me another peanut butter and bacon sandwich”). It’s more “presence” than “performance,” but with his sad eyes and creased face, West conveys a lived life beyond the tidy design of the story.

“Goodbye Solo”

An immigrant cabbie pesters an elderly man because he suspects the man is planning suicide; this sentimental sketch serves up some well-observed moments in director Ramin Bahrani’s character study.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter

Showing: Varsity

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