Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Movie Review: Goodbye Solo

Goodbye Solo *** ½
Directed by:
Ramin Bahrani.
Written By: Bahareh Azimi and Ramin Bahrani.
Starring: Souleymane Sy Savane (Solo), Red West (William), Diana Franco Galindo (Alex), Lane 'Roc' Williams (Roc), Mamadou Lam (Mamadou), Carmen Leyva (Quiera).

The films of Ramin Bahrani are all a little bit different from most movies that you see. A while back I finally caught up with his first two films – Man Push Cart and Chop Shop – and was amazed at their look into the life of immigrants. Man Push Cart was about a former Pakistani music star now living in Manhattan as widow, with a son he never sees, who works from early in the morning until late into the night selling office workers coffee in his tiny street stand. Chop Shop looked at the life of two Mexican children – a brother and his slightly older sister – living in slums that would rival the third world right in New Jersey. Both films are about people struggling to survive, who nevertheless do not give up on their dreams. The films do not judge their characters, but instead simply observes them.

Now comes Goodbye Solo, whose main character named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) is much better off than his counterparts in the previous films. Like them, he is an immigrant – this time for Senegal – but he has a good job as a cab driver, a pregnant wife and a stepdaughter he adores. Solo always seems to be happy, except when his wife stands in his way of following his dream of becoming a flight attendant. But generally, things are pretty good for Solo.

One of his regular customers is William (Red West), an old man who likes to be picked up at his apartment, taken to the movies then home again, and generally wants to be left alone. Sometime before the movie begins, he has made a deal with Solo. On October 20th, about a month away, Solo will drive him a few hours away to Blowing Rock. In exchange, William will pay Solo $1,000. Slowly, Solo starts to get more and more concerned about William. William sells his apartment, closes out his bank account and moves into a motel. When Solo gets into a fight with his wife and leaves, he ends up staying in William’s hotel room with him. The two, much to William’s chagrin, become friends. William helps Solo study for his exam to become a flight attendant, and Solo takes a more active role in William’s life. He knows, or thinks he knows anyway, that William is planning on killing himself on October 20th, and wants to find out why. Is William dying, and that’s why he takes so many pills? Does it have something to do with the box office employee at the movie theater that William always seems to talk to?

The movie doesn’t follow a screenwriter’s formula. There are no deep confessions of regret coming out of William, and even his journal only offers clues as to why he’s doing what he’s doing. There are no tearful reunions between Solo and his wife, and his interview and exam to become a flight attendant end differently from how you would expect them to. Instead, this movie is about the close observation of these two characters who are a study in contrasts. While there is pain and disappointment in Solo’s life, he chooses not to dwell on it. He is an open book, who feels no shame in telling anyone his secrets or proceeding headlong into William’s problems although William has made it clear he doesn’t want Solo there. William keeps everything close to his chest. He doesn’t share what he’s thinking – he cannot even bring himself to admit he likes have Solo and his stepdaughter around. These characters are brought to life by two great performances. That this is Savane’s first film amazes me, because he has such a natural screen presence. When he comes on screen he immediately grabs our attention, and earns our sympathy. West is one of those actors who has worked steadily for the last 50 years without ever really getting a role that people will really remember him for. He has worked with big name directors – Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Oliver Stone among them – and guest starred on practically every TV show imaginable, but for some reason never really left much of an impression. He is the very definition of a “working actor” and when given a role like William, he takes full advantage and ends up giving a great performance.

Goodbye Solo has a conclusion, but no real resolution. It doesn’t need one. It functions on the level it chooses to, which is to closely observe its characters for a few hours, and then stop. It’s one of the few movies where you can sense that the characters have lived a life before the movie began, and at least in some cases will continue to lead one after the credits role.

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