"I don't want to know anything about your life, and don't get into my life," growls William (Red West), a beefy and battered-looking old man, as he fends off Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané), the taxi driver who attempts to befriend him. Solo is a Senegalese immigrant who drives the night shift in Winston-Salem, N.C. His chain-smoking passenger is so somnolent that Solo suspects he might want to kill himself. As a way of attempting to save William, whom he nicknames Big Dog, Solo insinuates himself into the man's life, attempting to fend off the seemingly inevitable.
A lot of movies these days pretend to be "independent" when, in fact, they are often little more than microbudgeted versions of big-budget Hollywood jobs. "Goodbye Solo," the third feature from the acclaimed indie auteur Ramin Bahrani ("Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop"), is the genuine article. It has a refreshing unaffectedness and an unwavering sympathy for the lives of its people. It looks like it was made because – imagine! – Bahrani actually wanted to make it. It's not a resumé for studio work.
The deficiencies of Bahrani's method are that he overvalues grubby naturalism and doesn't do enough to shape the story, the performances, the mood. It's common for independent filmmakers, sometimes by design rather than necessity, to offer up a kind of chic amateurism. All those rough edges and unvarnished performances are supposed to somehow seem more "true" than conventional craftsmanship. But poverty of means is not the same thing as poverty of imagination, and some of the finest American films of the past few years have gotten by on very little except talent.
Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy," for example, is, on the surface, about nothing more than a vagabond, beautifully played by Michelle Williams, who loses her dog, and yet it contains, in microcosm, an entire buzzing universe of sadness and redemption. It's an example of how much can be done with, ostensibly, so little. Such a demonstration is especially important in these lean times when more and more new filmmakers are wanting to make movies costing less and less.
The best moments in "Goodbye Solo" have some of the same wayward lyricism as "Wendy and Lucy," although the film as a whole is not in its league. Bahrani doesn't make a big deal about the stranger-in-a-strange-land oddity of the Senegalese moving into Winston-Salem. The crazy-quilt quality of these immigrants mixing it up with Southern rednecks like William is deftly underplayed, and so it has more resonance for us.
Solo's pregnant wife (Carmen Leyva) is Mexican and his preteen stepdaughter (Diana Franco Galindo) is a bright sprite who alone seems to be able to draw the Big Dog out of his kennel of woe. Much more than her mother, she also responds to Solo's live-wire temperament. She takes seriously his ambitions to become a flight attendant and, along with William, quizzes him for the entrance exam. It makes sense that Solo would want this job – his head is already in the clouds. But what gives him his gravity is his connection to William, who wants nothing more than to be left alone and really means it.
Solo may seem like a goof but he understands what William is going through and tries, repeatedly and often clumsily, to save him. He sets him up in a motel and moves in with him, does his laundry, and insists on being his driver. ("You're one of my preferred clients," he announces proudly.) This might seem like a set-up for a comedy, or even a film noir, but Bahrani makes it look like the most natural thing in the world for Solo to do. "I am a very curious person," Solo trumpets at another point. What he is really saying, in his rich lilting accent, is that he cares about people. His care illuminates this touching, flawed movie. Grade: B+