Carolina blues

Pub date April 15, 2009
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Ramin Bahrani is a young filmmaker who’s beloved by critics and whatever arthouse-type audiences have been lucky enough to catch his work, thus far 2005’s Man Push Cart and 2007’s Chop Shop. Born in America to Iranian parents, Bahrani was educated at Columbia University and set both of those films — minimalist marvels that racked up kudos galore at global fests — in New York City. His latest, Goodbye Solo, shifts from gritty NY to depressed Winston-Salem, N.C., where Bahrani was raised. Winston-Salem is home to Wake Forest University, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, and RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company; it’s also where Bahrani met the real-life characters who inspired Solo‘s tale of an elderly Southerner, William (Red West) who reluctantly befriends the Senegalese cab driver, Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané), who regularly shuttles him around town.

In the film’s first scene — which really begins mid-scene, as if the camera just happened to be turned on at an unspecified moment — Solo has laughingly just agreed to take William to the mountain hamlet of Blowing Rock in two weeks’ time. As becomes increasingly clear, it’s a two-hour trip from which William does not plan to return. Solo, who dreams of being a flight attendant despite the disapproval of his hugely pregnant wife (mother to his feisty nine-year-old stepdaughter), reaches out to the lonely William for reasons he doesn’t quite understand. For his part, William would prefer to be left alone as he quietly ties up his affairs, though he does begrudgingly allow Solo to bunk down in his motel room when Solo’s career aspirations cause a marital rift.

West, a high school pal of Elvis Presley and a member of Presley’s Memphis Mafia (until Elvis: What Happened?, a 1977 tell-all co-written with other posse members), was a stunt player during the King’s Hollywood years. (As a big-screen presence, West is perhaps most recognizable as one of Patrick Swayze’s small-town allies in 1989’s immortal Road House.) His William is gruffly taciturn, with a mournful aura that suggests a past full of transgressions and a present choked with regrets.

By contrast, Solo is an ebullient force, working hard and hustling harder to get ahead. He takes to William immediately, dubbing the older man "Big Dog" and convincing him to ride around with him and even kick back with a beer at the local pool joint. It’s only when he interferes with William’s Blowing Rock plans that he understand the difficult choice he’ll have to make, should he want to become the friend William truly needs.

Hollywood films about aging are generally sappy, preachy, and stuffed with cringe-inducing scenes of distinguished actors skydiving (see: 2007’s The Bucket List). Not only does Goodbye Solo approach the subject with dignity, it balances out the grimmer William plot with Solo’s optimistic embrace of everything in his life. Realism, with naturalistic acting and locations, is Bahrani’s technical gift. Along with co-scriptwriter Baharez Azimi, he’s also able to hew giant, honest emotions from tiny moments and seemingly ordinary situations.

GOODBYE SOLO opens Fri/17 in Bay Area theaters.