Goodbye Solo

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★★½
Release year: 2009
Genre: Drama Director: Bahrani

Ramin Bahrani’s unadorned and disarming film is a beautiful surprise, inviting us to recognize the power of human interaction, no matter how brief.Goodbye Solo follows a brief period of time in the lives of two men who form an unlikely bond through a series of ordinary events.

The film opens with two men in a taxi driving through the autumn evening in North Carolina. The driver, Solo, is a cheerful and talkative Senegalese immigrant. His passenger, William, is an elderly man seemingly with a chip on his shoulder. William asks a favor from Solo: he will pay Solo $1000 right now to drop him off at the windy cliffs of Blowing Rock National Park in 10 days. He will not need a ride back. What begins as a simple business proposition turns into a heartbreaking moral dilemma for Solo. Aloof and dreary-eyed, William’s proposition seems like the first step towards ending his own life.

The two actors give some of the most contrasting and remarkable performances of the year. Solo is portrayed by newcomer Souleymane Sy Savane, a young actor from Ivory Coast. The other actor is Red West, a former bodyguard and close friend to Elvis who acted in numerous bit parts in Elvis’ films. They’re from completely different worlds. So are Solo and William. They don’t even seem to be acting as their paths collide in this fateful taxi ride. You can see the extraordinary beauty behind these ordinary lives. Solo lives with his Mexican-American wife and her delightful daughter, Alex. The friendship between Solo and Alex is charming, and his love for her is quite evident. Despite Solo’s marital conflicts over his desire to become a flight attendant, he truly loves both his American family and his family back in Senegal. On the other hand, William’s life and background are more or less unknown. He seems to prefer to keep it that way. For whatever reason, he’s resolved to isolate himself. William is the one who is “solo,” choosing to live and die alone with very little in the way of joy or laughter.

The titular phrase is never actually uttered out loud. It never has to. In a strikingly powerful scene between the two men, words can’t begin to convey the emotion that is written on their faces. Often a longing look replaces a phrase; a silent stare out a window communicates more than words can describe. Bahrani is a careful cinematographer, seeming to choose his shots carefully, conscious of their impact on the viewer’s emotions even when we’re not quite sure how it made us feel that way. Foggy drives through the North Carolina woods and late-night excursions on Winston-Salem streets create a poignant atmosphere for this woeful narrative.

Goodbye Solo reminds us of the power of human interaction. No matter how brief the moment lasts, everyone has the capacity to dramatically impact the lives of the people around them. A smile, a question, a helping hand or a hurtful stare can make a significant difference in a person’s history. A simple taxi ride changes both of these men’s lives forever, not in miraculous ways, but at least in unforgettable ones. I often wonder of the impact I make on people, whether consciously or tacitly. I wonder how a simple phrase I’ve uttered or a question I’ve raised or even just the fact that I looked their direction has changed the course of someone’s life without me even knowing it.

Yet Goodbye Solo also reminds us that despite our ability to impact those around us, our impact is still limited. We can’t make anyone change; we can’t save someone who is adamant about not being saved. That doesn’t make our efforts any less meaningful to both us and them, but it is a reality worth remembering. Even as I begin the long journey of raising a child, I am reminded that while I will likely have the most impact on his life out of anyone else in this world, I am still completely helpless when it comes to the choices he will make with his life. There is a tension here; we desperately want to save people we care about, to alleviate the pain they’re experiencing from a dark past or a poor decision, but they have to allow us to help. Perhaps Goodbye Solo is more than just an unspoken farewell in the film; perhaps it is a timeless sentiment that we were meant to live in community, that isolation can’t save us, that relationship is always worth pursuing no matter how painful it can become. As Roger Ebert put it in his review, “Wherever you live, when this film opens, it will be the best film in town.” I fully agree.

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