DAVE DAVIES, host:
The 34-year-old director Ramin Bahrani was born in North Carolina to Iranian immigrants and returned to Iran in the '90s to study its culture and filmmaking. His three feature films are set in American cities and told from the vantage of outsiders struggling to create a home. His latest is "Goodbye Solo," the story of a Senegalese cabdriver and a passenger whose life the cabdriver thinks is in his own hands. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: So much of a movie's appeal comes down to whether you enjoy staring at the actors' faces. In Ramin Bahrani's "Goodbye Solo," there are two you've likely never seen before — two tantalizing maps to pore over. The first belongs to Souleymane Sy Savane. He plays Solo, a Senegalese immigrant cabdriver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His face is wide and reddish-brown, with an indentation in his cheek the shape of a baby's foot and laughing eyes that can quickly turn quizzical. The film opens audaciously, with Solo in mid-chortle.
That's because a passenger of his, an old man named William, played by Red West, the other great face, has just said he'll give him a thousand dollars for a trip one week hence to a mountain with a windy overlook called Blowing Peak. That's a one-way trip, and it doesn't take a weatherman to know which way that wind blows. The implication is unmistakable. When Solo realizes it's not a joke, he sets about injecting himself into William's life, to the point of moving into the old man's motel room. Solo is studying to be a flight attendant, and he attempts to engage William in his hopeful quest.
(Soundbite of movie, "Goodbye Solo")
Mr. RED WEST (Actor): (As William) What are you doing?
Mr. SOULEYMANE SY SAVANE (Actor): (As Solo) You know, I don't know what I'm doing right now.
Mr. WEST: (As William) Who the hell told you to come here?
Mr. SAVANE: (As Solo) You know, I can go to Navani. I mean, I just can and rock - rock is a new song stuff I'm not interested in. So, you know, I figured, maybe for a couple of days, I could…
Mr. WEST: (As William) No. No room.
Mr. SAVANE: (As Solo) (unintelligible) This space is huge man, I mean I think 10 people can sleep in here. 10 people. And plus, see? This is all I have. This is all I have. I have nothing else. See this bag? This is only thing I have here, man. This sofa is perfect. All I need is a tiny place to study.
Mr. WEST: (As William) Oh.
Mr. SAVANE: (As Solo) An interview. Check this out. Check this out. I'm studying for my interview. And this time I'm going all the way, man. I'm telling you, all the way. No stopping. (Unintelligible) I can do it, going on. I can do it. I can do it because you know why? I want to do it. That's all, so (unintelligible) I'm just going to chill in here and study. All right? Is that cool with you? See, I'm sitting here studying. Can you see me? You can't see me (unintelligible) watching (unintelligible) I'm here chilling, man. You know what I'm saying? (Unintelligible) if I turn it off (unintelligible).
Mr. WEST: (As William) Stay out of my stuff. Keep your (censored) over there and leave me alone.
Mr. SAVANE: (As Solo) Thank you very much big dog. Thank you. That's what I'm talking about. Thank you, I appreciate that, appreciate it.
EDELSTEIN: This is potentially a sentimental set-up, and potentially creepy, too. You have a black man who could be said to represent the life force. And he's tying to revive the white person's spirit. And that so "Driving Miss Daisy," so "The Legend of Bagger Vance." And that big dog, big dog thing Solo does can get on your nerves as much as it gets on William's. But "Goodbye Solo" never goes soft. To the end it's a tug-of-war between hope and resignation in which neither player openly acknowledges what's at stake. The suspense is terrific. The theme of a piece with Bahrani's other two features. His first, "Man Push Cart" also centers on an industrious immigrant. A Pakistani ex-rock star with a hot dog cart in Manhattan.
The movie is somewhat contrived but gorgeously shot and evocative. The man's day to day rituals might threaten to grind him down. But to us, his outsider perspective on a world we thought we knew is endlessly fascinating. In Bahrani's grittier second film, "Chop Shop," his protagonist is a pre-pubescent Latino orphan boy who lives above an auto repair garage and earns a living doing odd jobs - some legal, some extralegal. And you're forced to suspend your moral judgments. You watch his dogged survival with a mixture of pain and awe. You wonder how he can go on with so little positive reinforcement.
In "Goodbye Solo," Bahrani has made a true drama. Solo engages, William parries, William yields, then his defenses fly up and he curses Solo out like the ex-biker he is. Solo keeps on. He's a hustler, in the best sense. He lives the way he plays soccer, guilelessly but inexhaustibly. He has a baby on the way, a family in Senegal, big dreams of flight. Yet it's fair to tell you that in some ways he falls short of his quest to reach William. Optimism, exhortation - they can only go so far. William has been places Solo will never understand. The actor Red West's eyes have bags under bags, yet they're almost lidless, huge and liquid. Those eyes let us in, while his harsh demeanor shuts us out. The director never gives up on William. His camera never stops searching that face.
But he finally respects its mystery. The greatness of "Goodbye Solo" is in both faces. It's a film of overflowing humanism, yet it acknowledges, in grief and wonder, that some things can never be reconciled.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. We'll close with one of the many Motown Hits that drummer Uriel Jones played on. He died Tuesday at the age 74.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.