Finally, a movie with people of color who aren't playing stereotypes, a movie that doesn't go out of its way to explain what people are feeling every two minutes, where the strength of the actors and script are enough to make you fall in love with the characters and story.
Goodbye Solo, writer-director Ramin Bahrani's third feature, cuts to the quick right in the first shot, introducing us to Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané), a Senegalese taxi driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and William (Red West), Solo's well-worn elderly white passenger. William gives Solo a $100 down payment on a promised $1,000 fare: on October 20, Solo must drive William two hours outside of town to Blowing Rock, a famous North Carolina cliff shaped in such a way that the wind blows mythically up. William will have no luggage and won't need a return trip. Solo quickly grasps William's suicidal intentions, and after failing to dissuade him ("Hey, big dog, you know tomorrow's another day."), Solo puts the bill in his breast pocket.
The rest of the movie depicts the two-week timeframe between the offer and William's final cab ride, introducing us to Solo's life and watching him attempt to investigate William's. Solo's Mexican wife is pregnant with their child, and he ends his night shifts helping her daughter get ready for school. His broken-down cab is parked on blocks in his front yard, forcing him to hitch rides or walk to his dispatcher's office to rent one of the company cars. The town offers him fares of old ladies, crack heads, drunks, and drug dealers, and only Solo's dream of becoming a flight attendant offers him escape from this lackluster situation.
Most striking is the way in which Bahrani portrays Solo as good. His goodness is pervasive, in his attitude towards people and life and in his unflappable optimism. However, his sunny disposition does not protect him from bad decisions or pain; in fact, his involvement with William stems from this very need to help others. Solo increasingly tries to prevent William's suicide, but for every bit of positivity and openness he shows, his 70-year-old client matches it with equal amounts of negativity and reticence. Solo does get closer to William by introducing him to his family and revealing his flight attendant dreams, but when William feels their relationship has crossed a line, he reasserts to Solo and himself that there are boundaries between them. As it becomes clear to Solo that he cannot sway William from his chosen path, he fights to retain his place as William's driver, to be the one who leads him to his destiny.
Souléymane Sy Savané and Red West are both exceptional actors. Like his character, Savané is an immigrant from Senegal who previously worked as a flight attendant for Air Afrique and did some modeling in Paris. Likewise, West, a former member of Elvis' Memphis Mafia and sometime songwriting partner, shares some of the wear and tear of his former biker character, which helps him inhabit his broken soul in quiet moments, smoking cigarettes and staring into the distance. The scenes between them are fantastic and become even more compelling when Solo's young stepdaughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo, in her acting debut) is involved. In these moments, the two adults don't patronize her; they do their best to talk around adult subjects while exchanging looks, exposing their humanity and foreshadowing, tragically, their goodbyes.
I was beginning to think films like Goodbye Solo were no more, especially after the passing of Ingmar Bergman and the increasing American-style commercialization of European cinema. But Ramin Bahrani, like other standouts Erick Zonca and the frères Dardenne, seems content to make deceptively simple and straightforward movies about characters with complex emotional obligations and cultural handicaps. By sticking to his neo-realist inspirations and focus on character, Bahrani has stitched together a surprisingly beautiful and gentle movie that could have easily been tainted by saccharine, overwrought monologues or stereotypical fish-out-of-water/odd-couple gimmickry. Thankfully, it's not, which is why Goodbye Solo is such a moving film.