In the opening scene of Ramin Bahrani’s third film, Goodbye Solo (2008), set in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, we see a taxi driver, Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), being given $100 by his passenger William (Red West). It’s a down payment, he says, for a trip he wants to take to Blowing Rock in two weeks’ time. The jovial, garrulous Senegalese immigrant complies, writing it off as the strange notion of an old man whose gloomy silences only serve to encourage Solo to make an even more concerted effort to get him to open up. He insists on becoming his personal driver around town, enlisting his dispatcher to redirect calls from William’s hotel in his direction.
Slowly it begins to dawn on Solo what William’s meeting with destiny really entails and the implications of it are like a dark cloud inching closer as the date nears. Solo tries to make sense of William’s motivations, but trying to get an insight into the old man is like trying to draw blood from a stone.
Soon the pair is seeing more of one another when Solo is kicked out of his home by his demanding pregnant wife Quiera (Carmen Leyva). She can’t fathom his persistence in chasing a pipedream of becoming an airline steward when so many responsibilities at home should be taking precedence. Solo more or less invites himself into William’s hotel room – the final stopover until his date at Blowing Rock arrives. William resents Solo’s persistence but at the same time doesn’t actively discourage him. On some level these men need one another even if it’s only for a couple of weeks in their lives.
Drawing inferences from Abbas Kiarostami’s masterful Taste of Cherry (1997), Goodbye Solo works not only because of its brilliant characterisation and naturalistic acting, but because it skillfully avoids sentimentality as well as ethic or any other stereotyping. The film is like a breath of air; with this effort, Bahrani completed a stunning triptych of films focusing on marginalised people fighting for dignity; ordinary, but vital lives that play out in the shadowy recesses of urban environments, beginning with Man Push Cart (2005) and continuing with Chop Shop (2007).
Solo is a forceful, unforgettable character and Savane’s captivating, infectious inhabitation of this man is so organic you could almost believe it’s entirely improvised. Despite his domestic struggles, Solo maintains an unflappable attitude; he’s funny, charming and savours every minute of life. It’s a credit to Savane and his creators – Bahrani and co-writer Bahareh Azimi – that not a gesture or word of Solo’s comes across as forced. Neither is he a saviour for William, befriending him for some contrived, altruistic reason. People’s lives cross paths like this every day, there’s nothing more natural but Bahrani’s film is like lightning in a bottle.
West, a bit-part veteran of the industry for half a century – and once a friend and bodyguard of Elvis Presley – imbues William’s waning days with a resolute dignity and humanity. His finest qualities are hard to detect beneath a surly, unsociable demeanor, but Solo miraculously finds a way in with persistence and goodwill.
A handful of key moments as the film nears a resolution are so beautifully handled. Poignant revelations are followed by the final scene between the two man – at the staggering Blowing Rock location – that is as close to cinematic perfection as you’ll ever see: sombre, heartbreakingly real, and needing not a single word to be uttered between them. Goodbye Solo leaves behind a profound impression of the complex emotions that entangle simple lives. Storytelling with such insight and subtly is a rare and precious thing; with this film Bahrani provided conclusive proof that quality independent American filmmaking is still alive.