Ramin Bahrani’s first two films, 2006’s Man Push Cart and 2008’s Chop Shop, wear the Iranian-American director’s neorealist influences proudly, and their release marked the arrival of a significant talent. However, those films’ tendency to shy away from any real form of tension or narrative momentum can seem forced, and the filmmaking skill on display isn’t quite enough to elevate either above the designation of a modest achievement. Thankfully, Goodbye Solo steps up his craft, his storytelling ability, and his characterizations, without compromising his dedication to realistic cinema, so rare in American independent filmmaking.
Chop Shop is clearly indebted to classics such as Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. In it, an impoverished young boy and his sister struggle to carve out a decent life for themselves amidst the garbage and rubble of a ghetto just outside Queens, New York. Goodbye Solo, in contrast, is a film of prevailing and pervading hope, which finds its inspiration from a work of Bahrani’s own heritage. Its basic plot is lifted from native Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, but Solo is considerably more engaging, favoring the depiction of a strong and inspiring human connection between two unlikely friends, as opposed to the lonely wanderer at the heart of Kiarostami’s film. Both are essentially about a man who seeks to end his life, but where Kiarostami found the grim subject matter to be a jumping-off point for stoic meditation, Bahrani sees it as a catalyst for hope and renewal. It’s that quality that makes Solo both Bahrani’s most compelling work, and his most optimistic.
The opening sequence here is jarring in its immediacy: We feel as if we’ve been dropped right into the middle of something that started before we got there. A garrulous Senegalese cabbie attempts to chip away at the frigid resolve encasing his grizzled patron. The affable cab driver is Solo, played by newcomer Souleymane Sy Savane (in one of this year’s most striking debuts), and his passenger is William, a curmudgeon who has no interest in chit-chat. Vaguely recognizable character actor Red West inhabits the latter role, with a no-bullshit attitude that’s appropriate, considering West was once a member of Elvis Presley’s “Memphis Mafia.” William, who has no use for any kind of friendship, offers Solo a hefty sum of cash to drive him far outside the city limits, and his driver’s reluctance to do so frustrates him.
Our introduction to Solo and William is their introduction to each other, and the unexpected relationship that develops between them sparks the kind of emotional connection that few films achieve. Much of that investment is owed to the actors, whose interactions have the sort of awkward chemistry that often occurs between two very different individuals. It’s Savane who we’re attracted to the most, but West ably tempers his screen partner’s exuberance, and their presence as a duo ignites our interest in ways Kiarostami’s solitary character study doesn’t. Admittedly, Bahrani is not the visual artist the Iranian director is, and gritty photography of Winston-Salem, North Carolina doesn’t approach the majesty of Kiarostami’s poetic, sand-blasted terrains. Bahrani’s cinematographer (Michael Simmonds) finds lush beauty in an early morning sunrise and texture in shots of Solo’s nighttime cruises in his battered cab, yet the film’s major visual coup arrives during its coda: a rapturous communion with nature that has a quiet intensity and lyrical quality on par with anything Kiarostami’s done, and that seems earned in a film of straight-forward, character-based dialogues.
At a lean 91 minutes, the pacing of Bahrani’s film is refreshingly disciplined: We’re given enough insight into Solo’s life at home with his pregnant wife and stepdaughter, without the film ever feeling aimless or stalling, as Chop Shop occasionally did. Solo “adopts” William and, once he learns of his suicide plans, he tirelessly attempts to invigorate the old man’s life. Solo’s intentions may be honorable and even noble, but his forwardness occasionally borders on obnoxious, and his meddling threatens to be destructive. His desire to help William stems not from a saintly perspective, but from that of someone who desperately wants a down-to-earth friend. His subtle, but noticeable confusion when he thinks he’s not getting back from the relationship what he’s putting in can only be described as human.
Pivotal moments such as the reading of a discovered diary, the opening of a letter and, most significantly, a wordless gaze between two men, are presented without intrusive musical accompaniment or any type of embellishment. Bahrani trusts the strength of his material and the tensions it naturally creates. So, in a sense, Goodbye Solo is every bit the stripped-down and fluid narrative film as Bahrani’s other two works, but this one has a propulsive momentum and purpose that the others lack. Bahrani may have always wanted to make films with a commitment to capturing real life, but Goodbye Solo feels like the first film of the director’s career that, by its minimalist aesthetic, is emboldened rather than stifled.