Oct 11

Goodbye Solo (2009)

Goodbye Solo is a singular kind of film. Although not without flaw, it hits every emotional note perfectly, which is more than enough to forgive the few missteps that occur along the way. More unique was its unexpected quality; I did not predict Goodbye Solo would bring me where it did emotionally. I would not say it is heart-wrenching, because the act of wrenching implies intentionality. Conversely, with a few small exceptions, there is nothing forced about Goodbye Solo. It is the sort of film that takes its time, slowly and inconspicuously making its way into your heart, without blatantly tugging at its strings.

The story wastes no time getting started. William, an elderly white man, offers his cabdriver, a Senegalese immigrant named Solo, a deal: he is to drive him to Blowing Rock National Park in 10 days, without bringing him back, in exchange for 1,000$. Solo reluctantly agrees. The abrupt beginning feels a tad jarring. Taking place entirely inside a taxicab, with no establishing shot preceding it, the scene also inspires a sense of claustrophobia. However destabilizing, this is all very appropriate: William and Solo have just met, and they have entered a pact that has effectively tied their futures together. When you think about it, meeting someone new often happens suddenly and without warning. Indeed, there is something undeniably abrupt about the genesis of relationships, be they friendships or romances. Also, consider all the potential residing in that single moment when two paths meet. If you have been in any sort of meaningful relationship for a long time, think back to that first moment. Is it not hard to conceive how it managed to contain all that came afterward? All that experiential matter, in that tiny little space in time; enough to make any claustrophobic hyperventilate!

William, played by Red West, has been visibly worn by life. Everything about him, from his face to his voice, testifies to that. We get the sense that beneath his weathered exterior lies not so much pain as disappointment. He is now tired and feels the time has come to bring his life to a close. West embodies his character. We do not feel we are watching two people—a character being played, an actor playing him—but one completely real person. In Solo, William has met an unlikely partner in what could be his last days. Played by Souleymané Sy Savané, he is youthful and optimistic, and dreams of becoming a flight attendant. He wishes to dissuade William from committing suicide, by inspiring him to persist. Savané infuses his performance with such vitality, it is hard not to fall for his character. In fact, I was surprised to find myself genuinely happy for Solo when he announces to William that he aced his flight attendant test.

Wanting to show him there is still much worth living for, Solo begins to infiltrate himself into William’s life. William is at first reluctant, but eventually succumbs; that is, until he can no longer bear the intrusion, however much it might enrich his existence. Therein lies the tragedy of the two men’s real but ultimately doomed friendship: what Solo so desperately wants to offer, William has absolutely no interest in. At its core, Roger Ebert observes, Goodbye Solo “is about the desire to help and the desire to not be helped.” It is also about learning to respect the desire to not be helped, even if the result is death.

For the most part, director Ramin Bahrani has produced a work of honest subtlety, carefully developing his characters without making anyone say or do anything that feels unnatural or out of place. In Solo’s case, for example, we are thankfully spared an “I want to go places” type of speech, explaining why he wishes to abandon his earthbound taxi and travel the skies instead. Bahrani trusts his audience. He tells us just enough about his characters, letting us fill in the gaps when needed. This is a wise choice. In this way, we are able to unwittingly project some of our own selves into the characters’ very fabric, thereby making their story all the more personal, without our ever really knowing why.

So much of Goodbye Solo works very well. Sadly, this makes the moments where things do not quite come together not only more noticeable, but disappointing as well. There are a few sequences in the film that feel contrived. During these moments, we sense the camera wants to tell us something, and meaning ceases to organically emanate from the frame. There is a jarringly deliberate quality to these scenes. They remind us we are watching a film, effectively removing us from the otherwise free-flowing sequence of events. At one point, for example, Solo consults a local map his daughter happens to be studying for school, to determine where Blowing Rock National Park exactly is. Later in the film, a calendar spread across his lap, Solo slowly slides his finger down the number of days left until William’s contractual ride. While both scenes may be seen as fostering a sense of intimacy (we are literally peaking over Solo’s shoulder in both shots), there remains something tactless and synthetic about them. They belong in another, much less nuanced film than Goodbye Solo.

Regarding the subject of slow films, film critic Dan Kois opines: “Part of being a civilized watcher of films, I doggedly believe, is seeing movies that care little for my short attention span—movies that find ways to burrow underneath my boredom to create a lasting impression.” While Goodbye Solo certainly takes its time building its story and characters, none of it ever feels drawn out; and so, I was never bored. In taking its time, however, the film managed to sidestep some of my defences. In fact, in response to the events unravelling before me, an experience beneath my direct experience of the film was, unbeknown to me, taking shape…

Once the credits started rolling, I thought to myself, “This was not bad. A bit slow at times, but certainly not bad…” I retrieved the film from the DVD player and placed it back into its case. As I reached for my coat before stepping out to return the film, I started to cry. The film had struck a cord, dislodging something that apparently took a while to surface. I reacted similarly to Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist (2010). I knew I had seen a great film when I walked out of the theatre; I simply did not realize how much it had affected me until a few hours later. Both films end with a parting between two unlikely friends. Also, if one of the characters had it their way, the relationship would never come to an end at all. Still, we understand both characters are better off taking separate paths. There is something beautiful and tragic about both endings, a bittersweet quality that is terribly hard to bear. They are existentially unsettling, reminding us that all good things must come to an end, be it life or the very things that make life worth living in the first place: each other.

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