“Goodbye Solo” is Ramin Bahrani’s third feature film, not counting the one he made as his film-school thesis. The first two, “Man Push Cart,” and “Chop Shop,” were highly acclaimed in certain circles, but only now have those circles have begun to widen enough for large numbers of people to pay attention. For Bahrani, this must be simultaneously frustrating (because it took so long) and gratifying.
Bahrani’s parents are Iranian (he was born, in 1975, in North Carolina), and the experiences of foreigners in America are woven into his films. “Goodbye Solo” is no exception. It concerns the friendship between a cheerful Senegalese taxi driver in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the cranky old American coot he ferries around, and though that description sounds trite (or, at least, liable to produce triteness), the film is instead a poignant work of great beauty.
The driver, named Solo, is played by Souleymane Sy Savane, who has no prior film credits. Solo is optimistic and friendly, the very picture of the hardworking immigrant who sees America as a land of opportunity. Not content to drive a cab forever, he’s studying to become a flight attendant. He’s married to a Mexican woman named Quiera (Carmen Leyva), who’s pregnant with their first child and has a young daughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), from a previous relationship. Except, perhaps, for her skin tone, you wouldn’t know Alex wasn’t Solo’s offspring — she adores him.
The passenger is William, played by veteran Hollywood stuntman and bit-part actor Red West. The actor is 72; the character is presumably about the same age. William couldn’t care less about Solo’s ethnicity or background, but he is not, at first, interested in being friends with him, either. He just needs a ride to and from the movies once a week. Over time, however, he comes to trust Solo enough to make a peculiar request: in a few weeks, he’ll pay Solo $1,000 to drive him to a mountainous destination two hours away.
That’s all I’ll say about the details of the plot. It’s a simple story, simply told, with honest characters and natural humor. At the center of it is the relationship that develops between these two very different men — opposite in age, race, and outlook on life; one eager to taste all life has to offer, one tired of living. With actors who weren’t convincing, or who made too big a show of “Acting,” it would be tiresome. But Savane and West are utterly unpretentious and unaffected, to the point that you find yourself caught up in the minor details of their characters’ lives. When it comes time for the words of the title to be spoken, you may be surprised at how richly felt the emotions are.
A- (1 hr., 31 min.; )