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Another Taste of Cherry

Goodbye Solo (2008)

Travis Van Sweden/65th Venice Film Festival

I have not seen either of director Ramin Bahrani's previous two films, "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop," but I have read an endless list of raves about them both. Mr. Bahrani can't seem to step wrong. In his first two films, he shot in New York on real locations using non-professional actors with whom he'd worked closely in rehearsal for months before shooting. So even though my local video store doesn't carry either one, I was really looking forward to "Goodbye Solo" and my personal discovery of this great new talent. I left the cinema not quite sure if I'd seen what everyone else has.

"Goodbye Solo" is about the relationship between Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané, in his first professional role), a taxi-driving West African immigrant, and his regular customer, William (Red West, a childhood friend of Elvis Presley's in his first leading role after a 40-year movie career), who hires Solo to take him up Blowing Rock - a North Carolina mountain - on Oct. 20. It's a one-way trip, and news of this worries Solo greatly. Is this man – one of his steadiest customers and someone he genuinely likes – planning on suicide? The rest of Solo's life is not going so smoothly, mostly because his very pregnant wife Quiera (Carmen Leyva) objects to his plans of becoming a flight attendant. So subtly, or at least he thinks subtly, Solo insinuates himself into William's life, going so far as moving to the foldout sofa in his motel room. Of course, it's not so easy to help someone who doesn't want it.

This movie is very smart about modern life. Life is complicated and confusing, and we don't always learn everything we want to know about someone. Friends are reliable, except when they aren't, and being an immigrant can mean there's an extra layer of difficulty in navigating those things which the natives take for granted. Kids are obsessed with mobile phones, sometimes to the detriment of the other humans around them, but other times not. Rarely has there been as appealing a depiction of a parent-child relationship as one between Solo and his stepdaughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo, a local North Carolina schoolgirl and an absolute find). Funny, smart and sweet, she sees clearly the strain between Solo and her mother, understands it, and sympathizes in the way that kids have of still expecting everything to carry on the same. I liked the focus on the circular journeys all small-town taxi drivers must endlessly make: from the apartment block to the movie theater, to the discount grocery store and the drive-thru bank and back again. Solo's dispatcher is a friendly voice on the in-car radio, and even when he argues jokingly with her in the office her face is never shown, which seems the right touch.

But although there's a lot in this movie by which to be impressed, there is still something missing. The main trouble is that Solo was very hard to believe – maybe even too good to be true. His friendliness, openness to experience, and thoughtfulness is that of a fully-rounded person, with a life that began before the movie starts and will end a long time after. His relationship with William just seems a bit weird; these two men do need each other, butin reality most men don't react to friendship moving up a notch so quickly and with such invasions of each other's privacy in the way that these two do. Perhaps the name of the movie is an unsubtle metaphor. Here we have a man, Solo, used to doing what he wants and moving from relationship to relationship with ease, and the number of people introduced to William as a former partner or girlfriend is significant. And we have another man, William, who does notice closely the world around him, but who is determined to shut himself off from these connections.

For a movie I didn't think I liked, I seem to have praised it pretty highly. I also seem to have used the word "subtle" a lot, which is not a word most films are comfortable having in their vocabulary. Perhaps the praise heaped on Mr. Bahrani after his earlier films is not so surprising after all. The reason "Goodbye Solo" doesn't quite work is that although one could see why Solo and William both made the choices they made, what they decided was questionable. And I should acknowledge that discussing a film and its characters in the same terms as I would discuss my friends is very high praise, after all. It's going to be quite interesting to see what Mr. Bahrani does next.


Opens on March 27, 2009 in Manhattan.

Directed and edited by Ramin Bahrani; written by Bahareh Azimi and Mr. Bahrani; director of photography, Michael Simmonds; production designer, Chad Keith; produced by Jason Orans and Mr. Bahrani; released by Roadside Attractions (United States). Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Souleymane Sy Savane (Solo), Red West (William), Diana Franco Galindo (Alex), Carmen Leyva (Quiera), Lane Williams (Roc) and Mamadou (Mamadou).


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