Goodbye Solo: A Movie Review

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There’s a form of human despondency that runs so deep, that a man gives up. Such a level of despair is manifest in many ways but most tellingly, we see it in the eyes.

These eyes view the world lifelessly. Once we may have noticed the acute acid of pain; now we witness only numb existence. Torpid nothingness has become preferable to the smoky sting of life’s heartaches.

Such eyes reveal a petrified heart, a statue without feeling. Such a man unwittingly escapes that which causes his pain by embracing something—anything—that deadens the life within him.goodbye_solo_poster_final

 

As the infectiously optimistic cab driver, Solo, peers into his rear view mirror, he looks deeper than most into the sad eyes of his forlorn passenger, William. Within the first few minutes of Goodbye Solo, the narrative exposition is complete.

William requests that Solo drive him to Blowing Rock, a real life destination a couple of hours west of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the city in which this movie was shot. He’s willing to pay a premium fare, more than five times the norm, to the first unquestioning cabbie that accepts his offer. William makes it clear that the cab fare is for a one-way trip. He won’t need a ride back.

This film is about the nature of friendship. Solo, played gregariously by Souleymane Sy Savane, an African-born French model, intuitively understands that his grizzled passenger, William, played by Red West (once a body guard for Elvis Presley), is navigating rough waters and may be nearing the waterfall. We might assume that Solo’s irrepressible good spirits are extended to everyone. Still, he discerns that William needs a friend more than the average loner and he reaches out with good cheer. The culture in which Solo was raised dictates that young families care for and take responsibility for the older set, which may also, in part, be driving his generosity. But his persistence made me think there was something more.

As I watched this movie twice, it was impossible to ignore my own internal tension concerning friendship. Specifically, how do I choose my friends? Mostly, I think, it happens naturally. Like most, I gravitate toward those that mirror my own sensibilities. It’s easy to embrace those with whom we share beliefs and personality characteristics. It fits. It seems organic. Harder, it seems, is to extend the hand of friendship to those we perceive as weird or that exhibit personality characteristics, beliefs, or values that seem somehow off kilter, at least through the eyes in which we view the world.

Long ago and far away, I remember coming upon the end of a grade school fight. Tommy had been pulverized by a class bully and he was blinking away tears. He was on the ground, nearing the end of a forced recitation of The Greenie Poem. Tommy had a bowl-cut. When he talked, he sounded funny, a little like what I imagine Owen Meany from John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” sounded like. He had a nervous tic. He didn’t have any friends because he didn’t fit in with anybody. I helped dust him off and invited him to come with me to The Valley Alleys, our local eight-lane bowling alley. We bowled a game or two, which I financed out of my allowance money. I tried to be a friend, and felt like I had done a good deed that day.

I’d like to say that Tommy and I became best friends and he turned to Christ because of my influence, but that didn’t happen. After that day, I don’t remember ever speaking to Tommy again. That’s not to say that it was a conscious decision. In fact, I simply don’t remember thinking about Tommy much until this film brought him to mind. And I realized once again, that being a friend, the kind of friend that isn’t so organic, often requires intentionality.

solo-pix

Goodbye Solo is directed by the quietly emerging Ramin Bahrani, who was also responsible for two other critically acclaimed films, Chop Shop, which I have seen and recommended here in the Rabbit Room, and Man Push Cart, which I haven’t seen, but have in my Netflix queue. If Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo are any indication, Bahrani is a director who likes exploring people that have been marginalized by society. His narratives don’t follow a paint-by-number screenwriting. His stories venture off the smooth highway with compelling characters that don’t use maps and drive too fast on washboard roads.

How nice it is to watch a movie featuring a character that doesn’t know the word cynicism. Solo is the most likeable movie character I’ve seen since Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky. In one form or the other, most of us carry an array of masks. How pure and refreshing it is to observe a character that hasn’t learned the art of sophisticated deceit; guileless not in the sense of avoiding white collar crime or robbing banks, but in the sense of being no less than his authentic self.

Most of the dramatic tension in Goodbye Solo comes from Solo’s largely rebuffed attempts at friendship. William is a good ol’ boy in the meanest sense of the phrase, who would rather not say anything. He’s settled into a state of uncomfortable numb, which is to say, he doesn’t want to be bothered, even by a man with good intentions and a good heart. If you dare speak to him, you run the risk of cultivating his ire. Like an infected scab, pus and blood will ooze.  In a series of  ignored verbal volleys, Solo finally pushes one too many of William’s buttons and he gets shoved:

Who the f___ said you could touch anything that belongs to me?

Phew. We had to know it was coming. See, that’s the problem. William is long beyond a desire to be touched. He simply wants to simmer in the analgesic of repressed pain and anguished sorrow, on the backburner of life. We learn that he once had a wife and a son. Like the good ol’ Southern boy version of Scrooge, somewhere along the line, he was changed for the worst. Now, the world must pay. Those that pay the highest price are those that—deliberately or not—awaken the hibernating black bear.

And yet, despite all that, and despite William’s own unspoken plan to end it all, we see melancholy flickers of life, like vague radio signals from a distant planet. We catch glimpses of William’s journal, which shows us in black and white, that there is latent sensitivity and something resembling kindness, in this cantankerous old character. We realize that this man’s incisive observations as captured in his journal, belie his outward bluster. William visits a boy, ostensibly his own son, at the teen-age boy’s movie theater job. William speaks kindly to the boy, who doesn’t have a clue that he is speaking to his own father. William details the snippets of their cordial conversations in his journal. It’ll break – your – heart.

I’ve seen plenty of good movies this year, but of the movies I’ve seen, I can’t remember caring about two characters more than in this movie. The script is wonderful, and obviously allowed for appropriate ad-libs from these perfectly cast characters. The movie is filmed beautifully with the final scene appropriately shrouded in fog. The last act will give you something to ponder for days. The film may not be easy to find, but I highly recommend it as one worth seeking out. Check your local indie house or art theater. Alternatively, catch it when it’s released on DVD, on August 25, 2009.

It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year. Original, profound, thoughtful, and even funny. Consider it a recommendation, from one friend to another.

Here’s a link to the trailer.


9 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Thanks for the review, Curt. I’ll put it in the queue and wait for August to come. Do you know the Iranian movie ‘Taste of Cherry’? Sounds like there are some parallels: a man recruits a stranger to drive him to the place he intends to kill himself, no questions asked. (The stranger is also supposed to bury the man). We got it from Netflix a few months ago…though, now that I think about it, I didn’t watch the whole thing… But the part I saw was good. How’s that for a movie recommendation?

  2. John

    Great review! I saw this a few weeks ago and agree it was an amazing film and I still think about it. I was even in a cab when I went to see a friend in NYC last week, and thought wow, this could be Solo!

    Jonathan – I heard the director speak at a Q&A on this. Although there is similarities to Taste of Cherry, in that they both deal with suicide, that’s about where it ends. That movie is from the view point the man who commits suicide, and is strictly based in a car. Solo is from the viewpoint of Solo, who is trying to stop William, and spends on a fraction of the movie time in the cab.

    Mr. Bahrani said a more direct influence on the movie was “The Flowers of St. Francis” and he felt that like that movie after WWII, he felt like the world, in its current state, could use someone like Solo. And I tend to agree!

    What an ending – it still hasn’t left, and probably never will!

  3. E

    Haven’t seen that one, but it does sound like a great movie.

    As I was reading your review I was captured by the name Solo. In a movie that looks like it is about (to some extent) loneliness and a kind of existential isolation and despair… to tie a relational character to music is a nice move. But to tie the ‘musical’ character to an expression that is expressed alone, but not in isolation (solos are meant to be shared after all) with overtones of beauty and excellent expression… well gosh that is just delicious.

    A note of ironic, or maybe unexpected hope? With Solo as the hope of connection with another person? What a great idea. With such an interesting title and premise, along with your review, this seems like a truly thoughtful piece.

    You had me at “So-lo”.

  4. Benjamin Wolaver

    Thanks for searching out these gems, Curt. I’ll be sure and check out this one.

  5. Taylor

    Wonderful post. I’m preaching on the sacremental nature of friendship this Sunday out of 1 Sam 20 and your thoughts have enriched my studies. Just before reading you post, I had read this from Eugene Peterson’s “Leap Over a Wall”:

    “Friendship is a much underestimated aspect of spirituality. It’s every bit as significant as prayer and fasting. Like the sacramental use of water and bread and wine, friendship takes what’s common in human experience and turns it into something holy. . . Jonathan, in striking contrast to his father, discerned God in David. . . Jonathan’s friendship entered David’s soul in a way that Saul’s hatred never did.”

    Solo sounds like a man who discerns God where others do not and William is obviously a man who has allowed hatred to penetrate his heart more than friendship. Wish I could catch the movie before Sunday, but I’m afraid it hasn’t made it to west Texas, yet.

    Thanks again for the review.

  6. Tony Heringer

    Curt,

    Proverbs 27:6 says “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” I think the test of any friendship is when you have to risk something in the relationship. In this case, I believe the wisdom of the verse is saying that a true friend will tell me the hard things I need to hear. The trailer seems to show this about Solo and his relationship with Red. He also seems to bring out Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”

    Thanks for the recommendation and the meditation on friendship.

  7. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Thanks, John, for your clarification re: Taste of Cherry. A good instance of the obvious parallel only being a slight parallel. Which is true more often than one might think…

  8. Janna

    Curt, Did you see ‘The Visitor’ last year? It seems to have a few parallels with this movie, although I haven’t seen G.S. yet. There is so much for the good ole boys (and the bad young gals) to learn from those they are least likely to interact with. Thanks for the reminder. Will try to catch this one on Netflix soon.

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