Goodbye Solo (United States, 2008)

May 15, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Goodbye Solo Poster

Goodbye Solo is a simple character drama that chronicles the interaction between a man who wants to end his life with dignity on his own terms and the Good Samaritan who believes there must be another way. On the surface, Goodbye Solo might appear to be cut from the same cloth as The Odd Couple, but Ramin Bahrani (whose previous features were Man Push Cart and Chop Shop) has fashioned something more subtle and sophisticated than a traditional "buddy movie." The movie is less about friendship than it is about respect and understanding. The lack of melodrama coupled with moments of quiet celebration make Goodbye Solo a more uplifting tale than one might expect with such a less-than-joyous premise.

Solo (first-time actor Souleymane Sy Savane) is a cab driver and William (long-time veteran and former member of the "Memphis Mafia," Red West) is his fare. They are both at the point of making decisions that will change the course of their lives. The crusty and cantankerous William offers the always upbeat Solo a deal: on October 20, ten days hence, he will pay the cabbie $1000 to drive him to Blowing Rock National Park. No mention is made of a return trip, and Solo intuits that William's plans are such that he only needs a one-way ticket. Solo accepts a $100 "deposit," but is uneasy about the proposition. He decides to do what he can to change William's mind, and begins shadowing the man - at one point even going so far as to move into a hotel room with him for a few days. What Solo gradually comes to realize, however, is that there are some wounds that cannot be healed by the fine sentiments of others and the truest mark of respect may be to trust that William knows best how to conduct his affairs, even if they include ending his life.

In many ways, Goodbye Solo is closer to Scent of a Woman than it is to The Odd Couple, albeit without the Hollywood concessions made by Martin Brest. The ultimate insult to viewers would have been for Bahrani to compromise the characters for the sake of formula. That doesn't happen. Goodbye Solo is true to both leads until the end. They both evolve - William opens up a little and Solo learns to see the world from another man's perspective - but the ending feels organic to the material, not as if it was meddled with by executives in suits eager to maximize audience sizes.

There is a third significant character in Goodbye Solo - a young girl by the name of Alex (Diana Franco Galindo). She's the child of Solo's wife and, although he has no biological connection to her, they love each other as much as any father and daughter. Bahrani and Galindo place Alex outside the zone of child stereotypes. She is neither annoyingly precocious nor a troublemaker. Instead, she's smart, inquisitive, likeable, and authentic for a girl of her age - something of a rarity. Too few motion pictures present believable children. Most of the time, they are either miniature adults or only half-realized. It's also worth mentioning that the scenes with the greatest emotional resonance in Goodbye Solo are those featuring Alex. She connects in a meaningful way not only with Solo but with William, whom she accepts and does not judge.

There are some minor missteps. The most noticeable is the inelegance of some transitions. There are times when the film jumps from one scene to the next with an absence of linking material. Are scenes missing? Were they scripted and not filmed, or filmed and edited out? Or is this a conscious attempt on Bahrani's part to give his movie an "incomplete" feel (the kind that might accompany a documentary, where not every moment of the characters' lives is captured on film and it's up to the audience to fill in some blanks). Also, although the relationships among the trio of Solo, William, and Alex are well-developed, the vagueness of Solo's relationship with his wife raises unanswered questions. She functions more like a plot device than a living, breathing human being.

Ultimately, Goodbye Solo works because the screenplay, actors, and director combine to craft honest, compelling individuals. Solo is the guy we wish we could all be - an immigrant (he hails from Senegal) who lives his version of the American Dream and doesn't complain that it falls short of perfection. He finds the good in everyone and is rarely out of smiles. William, on the other hand, may be the guy we fear we too often are - gruff and incommunicative. Thankfully, there's more to him than one might suspect from looking at his weathered face and, although he and Solo never become "friends" in the tried-and-true buddy movie fashion, the bond they form - as fragile and uncertain as it may be - reminds us that people who pass in the darkness can make meaningful connections.

Goodbye Solo (United States, 2008)

Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Souleymane Sy Savane, Red West, Diana Franco Galindo, Carmen Leyva
Screenplay: Ramin Bahrani, Bahareh Azimi
Cinematography: Michael Simmonds
Music: M. Lo
U.S. Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2009-03-27
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Occasional Profanity, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1