"Goodbye Solo" is a deceptive film. Its style is spare, rigorous, almost anti-dramatic, but it deals thoughtfully with some of the most complex elements of the human equation.
For director Ramin Bahrani, surface stylishness is not what's important. As with his previous independent works, "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop," he's concerned with echoing reality, with exploring the truth of the lives of the people on society's margins who populate his films.
So Bahrani doesn't start "Goodbye Solo" in the conventional way, with establishing shots that let us know where we are. Instead, without any preamble, we are thrown into a taxi in what turns out to be Winston-Salem, N.C. (the director's birthplace), and into the middle of a conversation between the driver and the passenger, a conversation whose ramifications will play out for the rest of the story.
The driver, a native of Senegal named Solo, is the opposite of his name. As played by Souleymane Sy Savane, an African-born French model, Solo is irrepressible and gregarious, someone whose infectious good spirits mandate hugs and handshakes all around. Yet though he's ordinarily unflappable and unfazed, Solo is taken aback by something his passenger says.
Though Solo calls him (and almost everyone else) Big Dog, the passenger's name is William. As played by 72-year-old Red West, once a stuntman and close associate of Elvis Presley, William is crusty, wary and foul-tempered, the kind of man who doesn't have a good word for anyone. But that's not what gets Solo's attention.
That would be an out-of-town trip William is planning, a trip he's willing to pay the right cabbie $1,000 to handle. In less than two weeks, he wants to be taken to a desolate spot called the Blowing Rock and be left alone there. The implication is clear: William is not planning to take another cab back; this lonely, haunted man is not planning to come back at all.
Solo barely knows William, but something about this unspoken plan disturbs Solo on an instinctive level. Seeing someone so cut off from life and community, someone so friendless and alone, offends Solo's cultural sense of the way the world should work. Impulsively, without any real plan, he decides to try to change that dynamic.
Solo decides this even though he has personal problems of his own. He gets along better with his 9-year-old stepdaughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), than he does with his pregnant Mexican wife, Quiera (Carmen Leyva), and he dreams of becoming an airline flight attendant even though the practical Quiera thinks he should stick to his cab.
But though his situation is in chaos, Solo attempts to get William involved in it, because he feels, without being able to express it, that anything that can create intimacy for William, that can get him connected to life, will lead to his finding reasons to persevere with his own.
This, however, is not one of those movies in which everything goes according to plan and things fall neatly into place. A bond of sorts does form between Solo and William, but it's not the kind either of them anticipated, and the film never even comes close to straying into Lifetime movie territory.
Rather, "Goodbye Solo," co-written by Bahareh Azimi and Bahrani, who recently won a Guggenheim fellowship, explores the provocative issues this relationship raises. Carefully directed and convincingly acted, it looks into the importance of families, both the ones we make and the ones we are born into. It also ruminates powerfully on what the obligations of friendship and fellow feeling finally are, positing that what you are obligated to do may not be anything like what you imagine.
This film's unsettling conclusions will likely haunt you long after other, slicker films have faded from view.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500