"Goodbye Solo" ****

I frequently rail against films with more silence than dialogue, in which little is revealed about main characters’ backgrounds or motives, and where the pace sometimes approaches glacial. All these are true of Goodbye Solo. Yet it transcends these qualities and emerges as a moving and minutely observed study of human nature and thought-provoking commentary on the value of life—and what happens when that gets de-valued.

The film is a virtual pas de deux between men with nearly nothing in common—not age, race, national origin, family status, nor outlook on life. Yet the irrepressibly upbeat Senegalese taxi driver Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) and William (Red West), the determinedly grumpy old American who hires him are polar opposites whose profound differences somehow draw them into one another’s orbit for a time.

Solo tells the story of what may be the last days of the old man’s life, for William has given Solo a down payment for a one-way ride to a famously high and windy cliff. Will he or won’t he? On that slender thread the entire film hangs. You might argue that it’s not enough, but on the other hand, what more profound question is there?

Solo is the third feature film by writer-director Ramin Bahrani, whose work I was introduced to in 2006 at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. Bahrani was there with Man Push Cart, which also took viewers inside the life of an immigrant (in that case, a Pakistani who sells coffee and snacks from a push-cart in New York City). Solo is told in much the same way—camera sticking close to the people, who are often silent, his pacing letting us observe what life is like for his characters rather than being told in words.

Longtime character actor Red West has a spectacularly difficult role, since he rarely says much more than “Stay out of my life” or “I don’t give a shit that…” but his creased, world-weary face conveys all we need to know. Souleymane Sy Savane talks more as Solo—indeed, William can hardly shut him up—and carries all the film’s energy.

Bahrani’s got a particular knack for filming at night. As in Man Push Cart (which contains a memorable scene of the vendor laboriously dragging his heavy metal cart through the heavy pre-dawn city traffic), much of Solo takes place at night. Here it serves to focus the film, shutting out the wider world nearly entirely so all that’s left are the two protagonists—individuals and forces of life and death.

Even at just over 90 minutes, there’s a bit too much of Solo. But the director’s trust in his audience to stay with his characters—and the actors’ skill at keeping our attention and making us care what happens to both of them—lifts this far above what a bald description promises.

Viewers already tired of mindless spring/summer multiplex fluff will find their patience and attention richly rewarded by Solo’s serious charms.—P.B.

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