Program Notes: Goodbye Solo (2009)
In this era of anti-immigration rhetoric, it’s sometimes useful to consider what a newcomer to the U.S. brings to the table — namely a sense of enthusiasm and hope.
Solo, the hero of Goodbye Solo (2009), has plenty of both. A transplant from Senegal, he’s found a gig driving a cab in Winston-Salem N.C. — not a great job by American standards, perhaps, but one that lets Solo indulge his love of his new country.
This guy bubbles over with the immigrant’s optimism. He jokes with his passengers, flashes a blinding smile and a hearty laugh. He calls his male riders “Big Dog.”
And he’s set his sights high. Solo is determined to get a job as a cabin attendant for one of the big airlines. He’s been studying for the gig in his spare time; he’s positive that his eagerness, charm and determination will overcome his “otherness.”
In small, quiet indies like Chop Shop (2005) and Man Push Cart (2007), filmmaker Ramin Bahrani (the American-born child of Iranian transplants) has explored various aspects of the immigrant experience.
He does so by observing tiny moments rather than making big pronouncements, and that approach serves him well here, for Solo could easily have become a teary bath rather than the clear-eyed-yet-empathetic study it is.
The central relationship here is between Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) and one of his fares, a grouchy, misanthropic old coot named William (Red West). William contracts with Solo to drive him the following week to Blowing Rock Mountain, a regional landmark infamous for attracting suicide jumpers. For this two-hour trip Solo will receive an extravagant $1,000.
Are you planning on killing yourself? Solo jokes.
During the week William and Solo are repeatedly thrown together. William even spends a night on Solo’s living room couch, where he is briefly charmed by the cabbie’s wife and stepdaughter.
But the terse William seems to be on a mission and won’t be diverted. He closes his bank accounts. He ties up loose ends.
Like Solo, we at first find William's surliness amusing. But over time the old codger pushes us through concern, confrontation, argument and, finally, acquiescence. We’re not exactly sure where we stand at the end — this movie raises questions it has no intention of answering.
But the embittered William and the normally sunny Solo provide a quietly compelling look at the extremes of the human condition. And it doesn’t take too much extrapolation to view William as a worn-out, weary product of “old” America and Solo as its energetic, gung-ho future.
Filmmaker Bahrani is clearly a name to be on the lookout for. Roger Ebert called his Chop Shop the sixth best film of the decade and hailed Bahrani as "the director of the decade." In addition Bahrani has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and has seen his work screened in retrospectives at MoMA in New York City, Harvard University and France’s La Rochelle Film Festival.
Goodbye Solo debuted in 2008 at the Venice Film Festival where it won the international film critic's award for best film.
Special mention must be made of Red West, who plays the curmudgeonly William.
West was a high school friend of Elvis Presley and became a member of the King’s “Memphis Mafia.” During the late ‘50s West drove Presley and his original band (Scotty Moore, Bill Black, D.J.Fontana) to gigs throughout the South. After a stint with the Marines, West returned to Memphis and became one of Presley’s bodyguards.
As a stuntman and actor West appeared in many films and TV shows, including 16 movies starring Presley. He also wrote songs for Elvis, Rick Nelson, Johnny Rivers and Pat Boone, including the BMI Award-winning “Separate Ways.”
See Bob's general introduction to The Golden Door film series.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.