Sunday, May 10, 2009

GOODBYE SOLO

"Goodbye Solo." is the unspoken silent valediction given from seventy year-old William (Red West) to the twentysomething cab driver Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) near the end of director Ramin Bahrani's third film in almost as many years. The scene proves Bahrani's talent, his ability to pull out physically communicative performances from first time actors. Red West is a seasoned veteran, but it's his face that Bahrani obviously fell in love with during casting: eyes of regret, smoker's hair, that leathery type of skin that evokes a past life lived fast and hedonistically. When William shows Solo the biker tattoo on his right bicep, the ink is so aged and faded that it almost looks like a bruise.

On the surface, Solo is not unlike Ale from Bahrani's Chop Shop. Both are jack-of-all-trade immigrants working overtime in order to make a better life for themselves and their family (in America and abroad). But Solo is a more complex character. His sympathy and charity toward the emotionally weary William reflects a caregiver instinct that comes from his family-oriented life in Senegal. After picking William up from a movie theater, Solo pries as to why William is moving into a motel instead of staying with family. William's response that he has no family confounds Solo, an immigrant in awe of the fruit in the land of plenty but puzzled over William's solitary living.

Thankfully, Bahrani avoids convention and steers clear of white-man/black-man racial anger or a soft-headed immigrant pity party. Bahrani shows his characters in Goodbye Solo as living in a post-racial reality, a melting pot of lower-middle class workers living hard and living free if not always living well. Solo's ambition is the film's greatest asset and attraction. His sun-up to sun-down exuberance brings to mind Happy-Go-Lucky's Poppy and her unphased attitude in the face of negative reinforcement. Solo's ability to follow through on his multiple verbal promises of "don't worry, I got you man" bucks the language of the stereotypical hustling immigrant that we get from Hollywood far too often.

But having just mentioned Goodbye Solo in the same breath as Happy-Go-Lucky, I've alerted myself that I must slow down, pause, and refocus. I'm finding myself falling victim to that quick overpraising of a film that, yes, may stand out in an age of 80-20 where a small portion of truly great films has caused an increase in praise for the average majority. Yes, in lieu of all that nice stuff I just wrote in the above three paragraphs, I still can't help but think of Goodbye Solo as a continuation of that "acceptable mediocrity" that appeased critics and hovered over Oscar season last year. Right now, Bahrani is a filmmaker with potential, not prowess.

I have little doubt that Bahrani is someone to watch. Goodbye Solo is superior to Chop Shop, noticeably correcting some of the faults in that previous film. The characters in Goodbye Solo are more assured. There is a slight humor on display. Bahrani's camera feels more at home in the streets and corner shop parking lots of Winston-Salem than that of Queens (indeed, Bahrani is from Winston-Salem). But it's the scarcity of Bahrani's style that bothers me. Some will laugh, but I think rich characters such as William and Solo belong in a road trip movie. Perhaps a modern mix of Jonathan Demme's Something Wild and Melvin and Howard.

Bahrani should let go of the modern "realism" approach he seems so enamored with. To me, it feels stifling, like walls around a would-be major player.

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