Summer is when Hollywood pulls out all the stops to get us back indoors. When you’re constantly being offered the biggest explosions, the wildest laughs, the hottest stars and the most state-of-the-art effects, it’s hard not to feel like a supermodel being courted by a billionaire. But for us here in Vermont, summer is also when not-so-commercial independent films trickle into theaters. Often they’re here one week and gone the next, to pop up a month later on DVD. With all the flashy alternatives and fresh-air distractions, taking time to see them on the big screen takes a real effort of will.
But it may be worth it for the last 15 minutes or so of Goodbye Solo, writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s quiet drama that won an international critics’ award at last year’s Venice Film Festival. While the rest of the movie isn’t quite as stunning — is almost painfully low-key, in fact — the ending wouldn’t be as powerful or as visually striking without its long, murky build-up.
Bahrani belongs to the small group of directors who are bringing minimalist, socially conscious realism — all the rage in Europe — to the States. If they have one common theme, it’s people in motion: immigrating, crossing the country in search of work, finding and losing direction. Like last year’s The Visitor, Goodbye Solo focuses on the relationship between a young, optimistic immigrant and a depressed older white guy. Like Wendy and Lucy, it has a dour, uncommunicative figure at its center — someone who insists on being, and remaining, just a stranger passing through.
Here, that stranger is William (Red West), a tough old resident of Winston-Salem, N.C., who regularly calls a cab company to take him to the movies. But he has a bigger trip in mind, and promises $1000 to his driver, the Solo of the title (Souléymane Sy Savané), in exchange for a ride to Blowing Rock, a desolate landmark where winds have been known to blow snow straight up. What about the return trip? Never mind about that, the good ol’ boy barks at his young Senegalese-born cabbie.
Driving Miss Daisy this isn’t. William stubbornly resists the young man’s efforts to cheer him up and draw him out, at one point going so far as to request another driver. But we can read in his bitter, unchanging demeanor, as Solo can, where that one-way trip is really headed. Though it’s never stated in so many words, Solo becomes an untutored suicide counselor to someone who refuses to admit he needs one — or needs anything else.
Many scenes are one-sided conversations in which Solo uses his mellow patter to try to break William’s shell — calling him “Big Dog,” speaking a rapid jumble of standard English, French and hip-hop. Savané makes him immensely likeable — which is good, because the film never moves beyond Solo’s point of view. We learn that Solo has a pregnant, temperamental Mexican wife (Carmen Leyva) and a whip-smart little stepdaughter (Diana Franco Galindo); that he dreams of traveling the world as a flight attendant; that he never wastes an opportunity to flirt with a woman who has a “big booty.” We see that his amiable adaptability — his refusal to be provoked — is his strength. We come to understand why, despite his grouchiness, William lets Solo bunk with him after they lose their respective homes — it’s hard to say no to the guy.
Meanwhile, about William himself we learn … that he likes Hank Williams tunes and used to ride a Hog, and not much else. But maybe that’s all we need to know. Depression has a million possible causes and contexts, but the upshot is pretty much the same.
And in most movies, a straight shot of life force — which is what Solo offers — is more than enough to cure despair. But Bahrani isn’t interested in making a film that invites the descriptors “feel good” or “life affirming.” Beautiful and unyielding in equal measures, his ending could occasion some heated post-film debates about what really happened and what it meant.
Given the prevalence of aging, depression and loneliness in our world, the answers matter, too. The Transformers sequel may offer us many things, but it can’t offer that.