Friday, May 28, 2010

One-Way Trip: Goodbye Solo

Every travel professional should be wary of one-way trips. While our TSA might be clueless, one immigrant cab driver is instantly suspicious when an old man offers him one thousand dollars to leave him at a remote mountain-top on a pre-arranged future date. Reluctantly, he accepts the offer, in hopes of convincing the suicidal fare to change his mind. Such are the life and death stakes of Ramin Bahrani’s quiet drama, Goodbye Solo (trailer here), which concludes the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens this coming Tuesday.

Solo is a born optimist. Preternaturally charming, the Senegalese immigrant has ambitions beyond driving a cab. For reasons he is not about to share, the hard-bitten William has seen enough of life and is presumably ready to end it all. Why else would he hire Solo to leave him at “Blowing Rock,” a peak known for its swirling winds that blow the snow back up into the sky? Rather than accept his money without question, Solo tries to befriend William, even moving into the old man’s motel room to keep an eye on him. Despite the obvious generational and cultural divides, Solo seems to make a connection with William. Yet, the old man still insists he does not want to be helped.

While there are a handful of supporting players, Goodbye is practically a two-hander for its radically different leads (though Diana Franco Galinda shows far greater talent than most child actors as Solo’s young daughter Alex). Indeed, Souléymane Sy Savané and Red West are completely riveting when playing off each other. Probably best known as Elvis Presley’s former bodyguard-crony, grizzled character-actor West is perfectly understated as the world-weary William. By contrast, Savané’s charisma lights up the screen in a fully realized, multi-layered performance that earned the former flight attendant and fashion model an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

There is an air of fatalism that hangs over Goodbye, yet it is not a depressing movie thanks to the presence of Solo. Unlike most current immigration dramas, he is not a helpless victim. Rather, he is a smooth operator and a relentless self-improver. As a result, he is a far more compelling and cinematic figure than the cardboard stereotypes of more issue-oriented films. Those who have ever worked the graveyard shift, including cabbies, will also recognize how well Bahrani evokes a sense of that strange nocturnal milieu. He demonstrates a remarkably sure hand throughout the film, crafting several scenes of quietly devastating emotional power.

Dramatic features are the exception rather than the rule on Independent Lens, but in the case of Goodbye, they certainly made its selection count. The winner of International Critics Prize at the 2008 Venice Film Festival, Goodbye was definitely a critical darling, but it is also a profoundly sensitive, widely accessible examination of human vulnerability. An outstanding film by any standard, viewers should absolutely avail themselves of the opportunity to see it on free TV thanks to ITVS (even if William’s saltier language is obviously edited out). It airs this coming Tuesday (6/1) on most PBS outlets.