Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

05 June 2012

The Immigrant Tales of Ramin Bahrani, Pt. 3: Goodbye Solo

In his first two feature films (Man Push Cart and Chop Shop), writer/director Ramin Bahrani explores the difficult life of the displaced and marginalized in New York City. For his third film, Goodbye Solo (2008), Bahrani moves the setting to his hometown of Winston-Salem and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. Along with the change in location, there is a marked change in tone in this film; despite its exploration of serious themes like loneliness and suicide, a feeling of hope permeates the film, largely due to the warmth and optimism of the central character, Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), an immigrant from Senegal who works as a cabdriver but aspires to a career as a flight attendant.

The film focuses on the unlikely and uneasy friendship between Solo and one of his passengers, a bitter and isolated elderly man named William (Red West). William is gruff and taciturn, every year of a tough life etched into his face; Solo is a large-hearted and gregarious man who seems to know everyone in Winston-Salem. The film opens with Solo and William in the cab discussing the latter's offer to pay Solo $1,000 to drive him to the peak of Blowing Rock (pictured above) in the near future. It is clear that William is planning to commit suicide there, and Solo sets himself the task of saving William's life by breaking through his self-imposed isolation. He arranges things so that every time William calls for a cab, he will be the one to show up; thus he sees how William is methodically getting his affairs in order: selling his apartment, closing his bank account, and returning night after night to the same movie theater, where each time he exchanges a few words with the kid in the ticket booth, never revealing to the boy that he is his grandfather. 

Solo is a generous man: generous with his time, his possessions, his affections, and his words. He's a nonstop talker, shifting effortlessly (sometimes mid-sentence) between English, French, and Wolof. In contrast, William's words are few and seem to erupt only out of his anger and need to keep others at bay, rather than from any desire to communicate. The differences in the two men seem to go beyond their individual personalities, and speak to larger issues of culture. While Solo is well-acculturated into American life, there are aspects of this culture that baffle him, especially the lack of community exemplified by William's solitary life. Early in the film, he questions why William does not return to his family rather than living in a seedy motel room. "Yo, why families don't stay together in America?" he asks. In Africa, he tells him, "Families stay together, man. We take care of our parents, our old people." Later, when Solo and his wife argue, he asks William if he can stay with him for a few days. William responds that his place is too small for the two of them, but Solo jokingly replies, "This place is huge, man. In Africa ten people can sleep in here." Even when William relents, he does so in the most negative terms, growling at Solo: "Stay out of my stuff! Keep your shit over there and leave me alone!" William's life is defined by a carefully maintained set of boundaries between himself and everyone else. In contrast, Solo rejects the very notion of such boundaries; for him, life is a shared experience. 

What saves Goodbye Solo from becoming a trite sort of Driving Mr. Daisy is the richness and complexity of Solo's life and the lack of easy solutions to the problems confronting William. Solo doesn't exist simply so that he can magically give meaning to the life of this angry old white man, although he tries his best to help him. But of the two, Solo's life is the one we see in the most detail and complexity: the immigrant with dreams of a better job and a better life, the married man going through a bumpy patch with his wife as they await the birth of their first child, the loving step-father assuring his step-daughter that he will always remain a part of her life. We know little of William's past because he refuses to share it. The only detail he divulges is that he had a wife who left him thirty years earlier. We don't know why. Solo's every attempt to find out more about William's past is rejected; his attempts to bring William into his own life meet with only a small level of success. There are moments when Solo's relentless good humor breaks through William's reserve, as in a scene that takes place after William has spent the night with Solo's family. But those moments are so brief and so likely to be followed by a violent retreat into his carefully guarded privacy that they never approach the kind of feel-good, happy resolution that would undermine the integrity of this story of a tough, sad man. Ultimately though, this is not William's story so much as Solo's, and in the film's final moments shot amid the brilliant autumn colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we know that for Solo life will go on. Maybe he'll succeed, maybe he won't, but he'll live a life filled with people and stories to share.

For more information on Goodbye Solo, visit the official site.

View the official trailer here.

Postscript: I would be remiss if i ended this post without saying a bit more about Red West, the actor who portrays William in the film. In a departure from Bahrani's usual casting of non-professional actors, his choice here is a man with experience with a capital "E." Though not a top-rung movie star with a familiar name and face, West has been in show business for over fifty years. A personal friend and bodyguard to Elvis (yes, that Elvis) Presley, West has also had an extensive career as a stuntman and character actor. Here's a link to an article about him that accompanied the film's opening in his hometown of Memphis. His portrayal of a man who finds nothing left to live for in Goodbye Solo is a powerful one, and his face   -- ah, what a face! -- makes me wish i were a sculptor. 

Red West (rt.) with Elvis, 1973 - © 1978 Gary Lewis.

Red West in Goodbye Solo © 2008 Lions Gate  


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