Goodbye Solo

Let’s start by acknowledging the oddity of the title Goodbye Solo, implying something once materialized on the laptop of some George Lucas acolyte with nothing better to do than tease out a feature-length goof from decades-old accidental subtext between Harrison Ford and a memorable alien ruffian. This movie is not that.

But let’s also acknowledge that the plot of this movie — amiable black immigrant cab driver befriends world-weary white good-old-boy — might in retrospect make a dumb-ass DIY Star Wars riff sound pretty appealing by comparison.

OK, now we can acknowledge, with great relief, that the beauty of this third feature from director Ramin Bahrani, who co-wrote it with Bahareh Azimi, is how efficiently it disarms uneasy expectations. Goodbye Solo is a work of poetically refined simplicity, in which small moments contain big themes and familiarities contain mysteries. Its main concern is the gradual, tectonic collision of two compelling inner lives. Its trick for avoiding tedium and sentimentality is to steer straight through those potential obstacles and hold its course.

Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané) is the cabbie, a garrulously cheerful Senegalese immigrant whose personality serves as a natural center of community gravity. Though not entirely guileless, he’s a man who carries himself as if cynicism simply has never occurred to him. For Solo, all things seem always to be looking up, which must at least partly explain why he’s studying to become a flight attendant.

And maybe he gets the fare he most deserves in William (Red West), a lonely old coot whose sad, saggy eyes radiate earned misanthropy. As the only person in this world with apparent immunity to Solo’s obvious charm, William seems utterly earthbound — except that he has his own flight plan, of sorts: The film begins with William offering Solo $1,000 for a pre-arranged one-way trip to a nearby mountaintop, from which the elder almost certainly intends to hurl himself.

Solo takes the deal. And he takes pains, meanwhile, to insinuate himself into William’s life, perchance to save it. But it’s not like he knows exactly what he’s doing, or exactly why. “You’re one of my preferred clients,” Solo says more than once, his insistence teetering uncomfortably between a business solicitation and an overture of genuine friendship. Sometimes William’s response is expectedly gruff; sometimes it’s astonishingly gracious.

Other fragile connections obliquely emerge. There is an unseen taxi dispatcher with whom Solo flirts, and a teenager in the box office of a movie theater William haunts. There is also Solo’s pregnant wife (Carmen Leyva) and inquisitive young stepdaughter (Diana Franco Galindo), who figure into things more directly, but also narrow the focus of the movie’s central relationship between the two men.

Whether that deal they made in the first few minutes amounts to an answered cry for help is open to interpretation, but in any case they’ll have the rest of the film for the ensuing, mutually challenging conversation. It occurs only partially in words, and more often in the nonverbal farrago of feelings they exchange. The performances are extraordinary, and the actors could not seem more right for their parts.

For that matter, neither can their environment. Goodbye Solo takes place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where its director grew up. Bahrani’s parents are Iranian, and so is his movie’s premise — which directly alludes to the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, from 1997. But Goodbye Solo’s accouterments are unavoidably, usefully American. That regional specificity matters to the movie’s sense of multidirectional potential: It has to seem plausible as a fateful crossroads of the American Dream.

It’s as if Bahrani, who is 34, knows he’s a little young yet to be mounting some grand elegy for the Old South, and a little too skeptical — or maybe too comfortably assimilated — to nominate himself as a mouthpiece for any diaspora. His combination of candor and discipline is invigorating.

So, bearing in mind all its suspiciously marketable art-house credentials (call it The Visitor meets Happy-Go-Lucky), and all the chances it had to become unfathomably cheesy, let’s acknowledge just how lucky we are that Goodbye Solo came across with as much purity and poise as it did. Let’s cherish the difference between epic fail and pithy fable.

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