"Bahrani's startlingly assured films—often featuring amateur actors—are the next chapter in the urban ethnic story told in turns by Lumet, Cassavetes, Scorsese, Allen, and Lee." So speaketh New York magazine, last year, when they profiled 33-year-old Iranian American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani. Such glowing praise would be easy to slough off as blowjobby hype if it weren't pretty much 100 percent true: As evidenced by his previous films, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, and his latest, Goodbye Solo, Bahrani is, indeed, the real deal.
After nabbing the International Critics' Prize at the 2008 Venice Film Festival and proving to be one of the best films to screen earlier this year at the Portland International Film Festival, Goodbye Solo opens in Portland this week, giving local audiences a chance to check out what the buzz is about. They likely won't be disappointed. Goodbye Solo is quiet, and patient, and melancholy, but its subtle confidence belies a surprising power.
Which is weird, because based on the film's synopsis, Goodbye Solo just sounds like a crappy remake of Driving Miss Daisy: A likeable black person drives around a crotchety old white person, and the two form a bond that neither of them anticipated. But wait! Hold on! DON'T GO AWAY! THIS IS BETTER THAN DRIVING MISS DAISY, I SWEAR!
Souleymane Sy Savane plays Solo, a cheerful, thickly accented Senegalese cab driver who spends his nights driving fares around Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Solo's Mexican wife, Quiera (Carmen Leyva) is on his case to get his act together, and their relationship is strained—despite the fact that they're expecting their first child together, and that Solo has a loving relationship with Quiera's daughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo).
We know far more about the earnest Solo than we do about one of his fares: William (Red West), a grumpy-ass old bastard with an untold past and worrisome intentions. When Solo takes a concerned interest in William, William wants none of it. Living in a cheap hotel room, he's ambivalent, if not downright hostile, to Solo's gestures: "Why am I with you again?" he asks early on. "Are you stupid, or you just don't understand English?"
It's a simple setup that another filmmaker might've mined for easy laughs or heartstring-yanking melodrama, but Bahrani (who co-wrote the script with Bahareh Azimi) is less interested in the Odd Couple-ness of it all and more interested in his characters. Both West and Savane give devastatingly insightful performances: Solo's sometimes-easy, sometimes-pained smile and eager over-politeness ("Thank you, big dog! Thank you! That's what I'm talkin' about! Thank you! I appreciate that. I appreciate it") are merely the surface characteristics of a man who's desperate to do what he feels is right, while William's unreadable eyes and weary gait hint at a lifetime of regret. As these two men's cultures and attitudes slowly and painfully grind against each other, and as a sense of melancholy, resignation, and inevitability fills the pitch-black night around Solo's cab, Goodbye Solo becomes something far more affecting than its parts.