With Goodbye Solo, writer-director Ramin Bahrani continues to channel Iranian cinema’s social-realist aesthetic and interest in marginalized figures. However, more than Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, with which it shares a similar narrative hook, his third feature’s true kindred spirit turns out to be Happy-Go-Lucky. As with Mike Leigh’s effervescent portrait of positivity, Bahrani’s film focuses on a dogged optimist, in this case a Senegalese cab driver in Winston Salem, NC named Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané) whose working-class life takes an unexpected turn when grizzled old Caucasian passenger William (Red West) offers him a proposition: for $1,000, he wants to be driven to nearby Blowing Rock mountains on the morning of October 20th. The reason for such a trip is plain from both William’s miserable face and his refusal to openly acknowledge that it’s a one-way trip, and immediately ignites in Solo a desire to prevent any suicidal calamity. His instant, resolute acceptance of William’s offer so that he might keep an eye on the despondent man requires—despite Solo’s gregariousness and good humor—a small leap of faith, but otherwise, Bahrani’s film proves his most consistently assured and moving to date, blending docu-drama starkness with a poeticism that never topples into pretension.
Like Leigh’s aggressively cheery Poppy, Solo confronts a less-than-jolly existence with a perpetual smile and helping hand, his upbeat, selfless attitude a means of repelling the harsh realities that threaten to break his spirit. Despite his wife’s admonishments to trash his dream of becoming a flight attendant, Solo’s glass-half-full demeanor refuses to wilt. And as the cabbie ingratiates himself into William’s days and nights, at one point even moving into his motel room after a marital spat, Solo’s good spirits begin to rub off on the man. Bahrani, though, doesn’t go for immigrant-heals-white-American pap à la The Visitor, the director consistently coloring Solo and William’s warming relationship (seen, always, from Solo’s perspective) with an undercurrent of unease. Both are hanging onto their respective on-the-outskirts situations with a mixture of defiance and despondence, and the sight of Solo’s cab driving through Winston Salem’s deserted streets soon comes to echo Man Push Cart‘s protagonist dragging his coffee-and-food stand through early morning NYC—corresponding images of lonely figures in transit, burdened by disappointment and fear, attempting to escape their current circumstances for a dreamed-of better future.
Bahrani treats Solo not with exotic cuteness or curious bemusement but simply respectful empathy, allowing Savané (in a magnetic, multilayered performance) to charm with polite conviviality, especially in scenes with his stepdaughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), and then slowly peel back his buoyant façade to reveal, in flashes, the uncertainty and disquiet that lurks beneath. In the lead-up to his fateful journey, William frequents a local movie theater, a routine that figures into the film’s denouement in ways subtle and striking, as the director (working from a script co-written with Bahareh Azimi) shrewdly opts not for revelatory exposition but rather just enough breadcrumbs to evoke the sense of family’s vital, enduring importance, as well as of loneliness, abandonment, and estrangement, that color the protagonists’ conditions. Even more than unfussy cinematography or the diegetic soundscape which conveys the milieu’s austere ambiance, it’s this understatement that lends Goodbye Solo heft, culminating in a lyrical finale in the North Carolina mountains (where the wind blows upward toward the heavens) that expresses, in a prolonged, silent final glance and subsequent coda between Alex and Solo, an arresting balance between resignation and hope, failure and triumph.