DVD Catch-Up: Goodbye Solo(10/24/2009)

            You may have never heard of Ramin Bahrani, but his films are among the most important movies coming out of the United States today.  Bahrani has made three films now and while none of them have come close to penetrating the mainstream, all of them have an aura of something new and special.  His distinct style clearly owes a lot to the Italian Neo-Realist movement (some have glibly called his style neo-neo-realism), as each film depicts a character struggling to survive in poverty and he extensively uses non actors in order to make everything as authentic as possible.  I discovered his first film, Man Push Cart, on the Sundance Channel and was immediately transfixed by the travails of the central character as he tried desperately to make ends meet on the streets of New York.  His follow up, Chop Shop, also depicted a side of the big apple which has heretofore gone unnoticed by the general public and the world seemed all the more tragic because it was a child placed at the center of the film.  My opinion of both of these films has only grown upon reflection and I was certainly excited to see what Bahrani would show us next.  His newest film, Goodbye Solo, shifts locations from New York to North Carolina but this does nothing to diminish the newest fascinating slice of life from this important filmmaker.

            The film opens in a taxi cab driven by Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané), a Senegalese immigrant with a young family who aspires to become a flight attendant and leave behind his cab.  In the back seat of the car is William (Red West), a grumpy old man who’s become very depressed and disillusioned as of late.  William has made a proposition to Solo, in a few weeks he wants to be driven out to an area landmark called the Blowing Rock, he doesn’t want a return trip.  Solo asks if William plans to jump off this rock but receives no answer.  After Solo accepts a hundred dollar deposit for this grim task he decides to try befriending William in hopes of eventually dissuading him from his suicidal plans, but William may be beyond saving at this point. 

            While Bahrani’s first two films were squarely focused on a single character, this one focuses on a pair of them.  Solo, like the immigrants in the first two films, is trying to slowly build a life for himself through tedious day to day work.  Unlike the other two, he’s got a family of sort including a step daughter.  The other major character is William, who’s played by veteran bit player Red West, though if this were a mainstream film he probably would have been played by someone like Nick Nolte.  He’s a gruff old man who doesn’t speak a lot and who isn’t willing to wear his heart on his sleeve.  William always resists Solo’s attempts to help him, but one gets a sense of growing respect between the two.  This relationship could have easily turned into a saccharine weep-fest were the story placed in the wrong hands, but Bahrani does a very careful tightrope walk and makes the story real rather than contrived.

            A big part of the appeal in Bahrani’s films is the way they let you eavesdrop into the lives of people you normally don’t have contact with.  Chop Shop was particularly good at this; it was set in the middle of Queens but felt like it was set in a foreign country.  Goodbye Solo does not maintain this same sense of foreignness, but it does feel like it’s peaking into a part of the country that isn’t always fun to think about.  Bahrani has never ended on an overwhelmingly unhappy note, and each one of them has been more hopeful than the last.  The ending of Goodbye Solo is particularly strong in the way it manages to balance hope and melancholy through a few well chosen images. 

            Writing this, I consistently find myself referring back to Bahrani’s previous work and comparing.  Such is the nature of the man’s oeuvre, in a particularly auteurist way he’s managed to make statements in individual films that are magnified by their place in a larger body of work.  These are some of the best films about the American immigrant experience that I’ve ever seen and in bringing the techniques of Italian neo-realism into the 21st century, Bahrani has crafted a unique style that has only improved over the course of three films.  I’m dying to know where Bahrani goes from here, until then we have a trilogy of excellent films to admire.

**** out of Four

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