The phrase “goodbye Solo” is never uttered out loud in Goodbye Solo, but in the film’s key scene it is the central sentiment. And it is conveyed in an old man’s eyes. It’s not really there, but it’s implied. And the same could be said for Goodbye Solo at large: it’s a film of remarkable restraint and subtle suggestion, where so many “points” aren’t hammered home as much as they are delicately positioned for us to coax them into place. It’s a rare film in the way that it knocks you down without ever having to so much as blow in your direction.
Goodbye Solo is the new film from director Ramin Bahrani, who Roger Ebert calls “the new great American director.” Bahrani previously directed Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop(2007), which was one of the best films I saw last year. Goodbye Solo is equally impressive, though in a more understated way. The film is so ridiculously earnest and straightforward—with no shred of indie exhibitionism—that you might not expect the depth and power that it ultimately communicates. But take Ebert’s word for it when he says, at the end of his review: “Wherever you live, when this film opens, it will be the best film in town.”
Like Chop Shop, a neo-realist gem in which we are allowed to peak in on the lives of impoverished youngsters in some Godforsaken corner of the Bronx, Goodbye Solo plops us down in medias res into the lives of two people who couldn’t be more different and yet find themselves tied together for a short time on life’s long road (in this case, in modern-day Winston-Salem, NC). They are William (Red West), an aging white curmudgeon, and Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), an uber-friendly cab driver who hails from Senegal and becomes William’s preferred driver.
The film gives us little background on these guys. What we know about them is pretty much what they know about each other. Which is not a lot. There are things we want to know—the secrets and history and heartbreaks of these characters—but they are elusive to us because they are elusive to each other. The film is about the relationship between these two men in particular, but it’s also about relationships at large: how even when we need each other, care for each other, and want to be close to each other, we often make friendship more difficult than it need be. It’s hard to really let ourselves be known, even when that’s what we know we need.
Solo reaches out to William and really wants to be his friend. William, cantankerous and unfriendly, puts up walls and refuses to let Solo get too close. And yet the two of them forge a bond, due in large part to Solo’s persistence: he is worried that William is suicidal and wants to help him work through whatever issues he is struggling with. Solo does his best, but in the end William is too committed to a private ownership of his suffering. Like so many of us who prefer to keep our friends and loved ones at arm’s length, William is stubbornly solitary and aggressively distant. He is the one who should be named "solo."
In the film, it is clear that Solo and William need each other. For whatever reason, fate brought them together at a crucial juncture in their lives. We assume it is because Solo is meant to save William. But alas, you can’t save people who are not willing to save themselves. It’s a relief, really, that Goodbye Solo doesn’t turn into yet another “immigrant teaches old white American how to really live” film. Rather it is a more realistic examination of how two souls converge, connect in fits and starts, and then go their separate ways.
No relationship lasts forever, and sometimes it's more painful than productive to get wrapped up in another person’s life. But I think the message of Goodbye Solo is that we must seek each other out and love people persistently, even if we’re ill-matched, even if it’s doubtful whether we’ll be lifelong friends (how many “lifelong friends” are any of us granted in life, anyway?).
It might only be for a short time, and in the end we probably won’t transform someone’s life. But there’s something to be said for just being there with someone, for a time. You can only do so much, but sometimes a little can go a long way.