Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Goodbye Solo

By Elise Nakhnikian

Goodbye Solo’s Solo reminded me of Happy-Go-Lucky’s Poppy, another working-class protagonist whose cheerful kindness and persistent attempts to connect with everyone around them amount to a kind of grace. The movies seem related too, both deftly illuminating the lives of people who would only be glimpsed in the background of mainstream movies, if they were seen at all.

But Goodbye, Solo director Ramin Bahrani had another model in mind. Bahrani, whose parents emigrated to North Carolina from Iran, invokes a Persian tradition called tazmin to explain the inspiration he and cowriter Bahareh Azimi, an Iranian-born citizen of France, drew on for their second collaboration after Chop Shop.

Tazmin, Bahrani told The New York Times, is “a longstanding tradition of poets taking one line or one beat or one idea from an earlier poem, picking it up and putting it in their own poem and going on from there.” In this case, the beat he and Azimi picked up was from the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, the story of an older man who wants to commit suicide and the young man whose help he enlists, and who tries to convince him to change his mind.

The older man in Goodbye, Solo is William (Red West), a cantankerous hill country codger with disappointment carved deep into the crevasses of his face. The young man is a sunny Senegalese cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane). When William reserves Solo’s time for a one-way trip to Blowing Rock, an outcropping in the Smoky Mountains famous for its intense winds, the cabbie sees what he’s up to and launches a tenacious campaign to talk him out of it. Planting himself in William’s way again and again, armed with a smile and a story, Solo wins the old man’s grudging friendship while trying to solve the mystery behind the his disillusionment and depression.

Meanwhile, we see enough of Solo’s home life to know he’s in danger of losing his own family – his very pregnant wife, Quiera (Carmen Leyva) and his beloved stepdaughter Alex (a very strong Diana Franco Galindo).

Set in Bahrani’s hometown of Winston-Salem and based on a cab driver he met at a pickup soccer game while visiting his brother, Goodbye, Solo is the third in a series of Bahrani films about immigrants hustling to eke out a living in American cities. Man Push Cart (2005) centered on a Pakistani working a mobile food cart in Manhattan. Chop Shop (2007) was about a teenage brother and sister from the Dominican Republic who live and work amid a bleak row of chop shops in Willets Point, Queens.

His latest starts in the middle of a conversation between the two men in Solo’s cab, Solo’s radiant face and William’s battered mask looming large against the black backdrop of the night. For most of the movie, cinematographer Michael Simmonds, who also shot Chop Shop and Man Push Cart, stays tight on those faces, scouring them like a miner hunting for gold. In fact, the camera homes in so close on Solo that you often don’t even see the people he’s talking to.

Then Solo’s cab climbs through a dense mist into the awesome beauty of the mountains, and the camera pulls back. Rather than studying their faces, we see both men – and Alex, who Solo brings along in a last-ditch effort to woo William back from the brink – at a distance, vulnerable little figures that keep literally disappearing into the fog or the forest.

Like the end of Chop Shop, in which a flock of pigeons rises into the air in front of one of the car repair shops, Goodbye, Solo’s ending resonates deeply, heavy with mystery and an inchoate sense of hope.

Bahrani invests months in getting to know the real-life models for his characters – he spent three or four months with the cab driver who was the inspiration for Solo before starting work on this script. Then he takes almost as long to cast just the right mix of professional and non-professional actors and get them comfortable with their roles. The 12-year-old schoolboy who played the lead in Chop Shop got so good at priming and painting cars that he wound up getting paid for doing his character’s work. And Savane, who couldn’t drive when Bahrani cast him, got his license and spent several weeks before shooting began working for the real-life cab company that Solo drives for.

That attention to detail pays off in Bahrani’s movies, which just keep getting richer. In Goodbye Solo, you feel an artist coming into his own, painting a portrait of two memorable men and their prickly friendship with a mastery that makes it look easy.

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