For someone who writes about films as I do, there are always cases of movies that fly under the radar, escaping my notice, maybe not even playing locally, but which I eventually encounter by chance and discover as a revelation or a hidden cinematic gem. I recently watched, for example, a film from 2008 called Goodbye Solo, directed by Ramin Bahrani, an Iranian-American filmmaker from North Carolina who made a movie in ’07 that I admired, called Chop Shop.
So, first of all, Goodbye Solo is not about Han Solo, in case you were wondering. It takes place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A cab driver, an immigrant from Senegal nicknamed Solo, and played by Souléymane Sy Savané, picks up a fare, an irascible old man named William, played by Red West. William offers to pay Solo $1000 to take him in two weeks to Blowing Rock, a windy wilderness peak in west North Carolina. He doesn’t ask for a return ride. Solo is a very friendly, ebullient and talkative young man. He calls William “Big Dog” and agrees to take him to Blowing Rock in two weeks, but he also wonders about the old man’s intentions. Is he planning to commit suicide?
The central fact of this unusual story, written by Bahrani and his frequent collaborator Bahareh Azimi, is that this man Solo is quite a character. He lives with his girlfriend and her daughter, doing his best to support them while hoping to pass an exam so he can become a flight attendant. But it’s his attitude in his daily life that makes him remarkable—Solo is a relentlessly cheerful optimist, greeting everyone with a smile and a joke, sensitive and generous to a fault. And unlike most people who would understandably mind their own business when it came to a gruff elderly man insisting that he only wants to be left alone, Solo is very concerned, very worried about what William is planning to do on Blowing Rock, and he goes way out of his way, again and again, to try to prevent the man from taking his own life. His persistent efforts to make friends with William, putting him up in a motel room, getting groceries, cooking for him and more, despite the old man’s obvious desire to not have any friends, is really quite funny, and at the same time it’s amazingly touching. Solo is the ideal of what you might be like if your heart was completely open and giving to everyone you met. This description makes it sound like some kind of saccharine fantasy, but the direction, the acting and the script are anything but.
Savené was a relative newcomer to film at the time, and he’s unforgettably delightful and charming as Solo. Red West, who died last year, was a musician and songwriter who was a close friend of Elvis Presley. How he manages to evoke your sympathy and even your love, while being such an unsmiling curmudgeon, is some kind of miracle. Goodbye Solo is so out of the ordinary that I wondered how anyone would have thought of it. But it’s also one of the most poignant films you probably haven’t seen. You can remedy that. It’s available streaming and on DVD.