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.
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.
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.