An Senegalese cabbie picks up an old man. The old man has offered the cab driver $1000 to drop him off at a peak outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina (Blowing Rock I believe) in 10 days. This is a fairly unusual request – the cabbie points this out, and wonders – the old guy is in no mood to discuss his business. We wonder what’s the deal. The movie continues to follow. The old guy gets dropped off at a particular movie theater. He goes in to catch the feature. The cabbie comes back to get him – the old guy wonders why he came back. The cabbie is the epitome of cheerful – “We friends now”.
At this point, there are a lot of possibilities. Could this be a Driving Miss Daisy for a new age? Will the black man teach the white man about not being such a big meanie? Will the white man reveal his xenophobia touching off the next great race riot (perhaps tearing apart a formerly peaceful community while we’re at it)? Fortunately, Goodbye Solo avoids all of these things – and instead becomes a character study of remarkable economy – an economy that is the emerging thumbprint of a Ramin Bahrani film.
In many ways Ramin Bahrani is the Usain Bolt of movies – or at least through the two movies of his I’ve seen there is that sort of talent at work. It’s not so much that Bahrani is a talented filmmaker or has made a couple of movies (between Goodbye Solo and Man Push Cart), though that is decidedly the case – but it is how easily the talent flows. Like Bolt’s amazing Olympic run – Bahrani’s films have an effortlessness about them. The viewer almost has the feeling of dropping in on these lives – that we are in a slice of documentary life, and not a fiction movie with a plot that had to be written by somebody.
How does this manifest itself in Goodbye Solo? It is in the details. Consider an early scene where Solo (the cabbie) drops his cab off at the dispatch and asks the dispatcher (a female) to keep an eye for the old guy. She can’t do it – it is against protocol. Of course, Solo speaks to her flirting – complimenting her – but in a clowning sort of way. We all know people who are like that – guys who know they are full of shit but can’t help themselves. Bahrani gets the ear exactly right – and her response hints at a working relationship that started long before anybody bothered to put a camera on it.
We see Solo’s very complicated home life. We see his wife, and her daughter – and the love in his eyes when it comes to her – and the frustration in his wife’s eyes when it comes to him. We see Solo dreaming of becoming a flight attendant. We also see the old man, William. Why does he keep coming back to the movie theater? Red West (the man portraying William) has a face that shows many years of hard living – but what has that entailed? Why is he so cranky and unresponsive to Solo? And while he is so cranky – why does he not protest Solo’s attempts at being friendly?
Bit by bit, Bahrani and his actors (non-professional I read) create a world grounded so completely in reality and so free of melodrama or “cinematic” touches that we get really invested in their choices, and their feelings. There is tremendous suspense – but the suspense is not tied to the plot, but in the dynamics of the relationships. Now indeed, there is a plot and narrative engine – this movie is not an aimless blob – but it reveals itself at the exact right pace, and really goes the only way it really can. And with the suspense being driven in the character reactions to plot occurences – I could probably describe the plot without a spoiler warning, but I won’t. What is sufficient to say is that by the end of the movie – through this very particular character study – Bahrani manages to find tone and insights about being our brother’s keeper – that a more showy message picture could only dream of delivering. It is said that often great works are difficult to experience – a Joyce novel maybe – but then some of them aren’t, because it is so utterly natural and true. After the bankruptcy that was Kick-Ass, this is an anathema.