Ramin Bahrani's Goodbye Solo is the best in a stream of new independent movies, including Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, that bring feature films the intimate focus and sneaky power of regionally flavored short stories - the sort you'd find in a first-class magazine such as Oxford American. It's intelligent and emotional, not studied or sappy.
Bahrani wrings honest humor and meaning from a two-character tale. The movie is about farewells and flying solo. It's also about the mistake of treating a certain span of life as a bye week in a sports season.
Set in spots of Winston-Salem, N.C., whose mood and ambience embrace the photographic art of Edward Hopper, Robert Frank and Walker Evans, this film details the partnership between a talkative, compulsively amiable Senegalese cabbie named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) and an aged, rough-hewn, down-home boy named William (Red West). Solo keeps calling him "Big Dawg," as if to remind himself he's trying to teach this long-in-the-tooth fellow some new tricks. In the opening seconds, William hires Solo to take him to a famously windy spot named Blowing Rock.
Solo immediately worries that William wants to say goodbye to life, alone. Who better to do that with than a guy named Solo? And Solo has his own problems. He's not happy as a cabbie and not settled in his everyday existence. He wants to be a flight steward and can't face the resulting disapproval of his wife, Quiera (Carmen Leyva). Quiera is pregnant with his first child, and Solo adores his stepchild, a smart and affectionate daughter named Alex (Diana Franco Galindo). But he blows up disagreements into marriage-altering rifts. It's as if he wants to take a bye on this section of his life and move on to the next one. His concern for William is genuine. Does Solo somehow feel that getting William to take one more chance on life will improve his own karma?
Bahrani doesn't sentimentalize either man. William is stubborn. Anyone who hopes to connect to him, including forthright and resourceful little Alex, must do it on William's terms. But Solo is no simple guardian angel. He spreads his charm indiscriminately and sometimes even immorally. His list of "preferred customers" includes a shady character named Roc (Lane Roc Williams), who in one abrupt, scary incident rouses the ire of an inner-city gang.
Still, Solo doesn't just lavish the world at large with his good cheer. He relates to everyone specifically, from the woman who holds the phone at the taxi dispatch office (we never see her face) to the janitor at the motel where he and William briefly share quarters.
Paradoxically, Solo's urge to know all the people around him spurs him to home in on William. Yet the movie acquires poignancy and pull because Solo's quest turns into a journey of self-knowledge. He begins to appreciate William's integrity as well as his wariness; he lacks these qualities himself. Bahrani conjures moving portraiture with these two men, who gain in understanding - if not the usual Tinseltown brotherhood or affection. Together they shape performances that are beyond reproach.
Red West's features aren't "weathered" in any mellow way. Nothing about him is worn smooth. His edges are rough, his furrows entrenched. But his emotional sureness and honesty are indelible: His range may be narrow, but he's deep. And Savane pulls off the feat of portraying a cheerful man becoming serious. His performance keeps stretching downward, to match William's depth - and then, in the breathtaking poetic climax, soars up. Goodbye Solo is a two-hander, but few "bigger" films leave you feeling at once so low and so high.
(Roadside Attractions) Starring Souleymane Sy Savane and Red West. Directed by Ramin Bahrani. Rated R for language. Time 91 minutes.