Goodbye Solo (2008): Everybody Wanna Save My Soul, Nobody Wanna Save My Life

In 91 minutes Ramin Bahrani convinced me of the uniqueness and importance of his voice in the film industry, with his stunning film Goodbye Solo (2008). Someone give this man recognition. And money to make more movies. Please.

Synopsis: A cabbie takes it upon himself to save the life of a regular fare who plans to commit suicide at the end of the week.

When we sat down to watch this, I was not in the mood for heavy, thought-provoking drama. However, within 2 minutes, this movie had completely grabbed me with the simplest of scenarios. We open on Solo, a Senegalese immigrant cab driver, and his fare William, alone in a cab. With no action at all, merely dialogue and remarkable acting, the stage is set and the audience is hooked; as Solo drives William to his destination, cheerfully chatting along, he slowly begin to realize what William plans and we share Solo’s panicked reaction of “what should I do”?

What would most of us do? Drop William off and head home, likely. After all, it’s not our business. William has the right to make his own decisions. Now what’s on TV? I don’t mean to be glib (and I’m not here to judge – would I do any differently?), but in Western society, we’re so individualized that the idea of helping others directly is foreign. Isn’t there just a charity I can donate to? Goodbye Solo reminded me of Nick Hornby’s novel How to be Good, in which we’re challenged to ask ourselves what really makes a person “good”. Is it the job we do, the things we have, or how we treat others, particularly the less fortunate and the desperate? For whatever reason (his more collectivist culture, his own good nature, a desire to keep a regular fare), Solo decides that he will save William, whatever it takes. And despite the fact that William does not want to be saved.

And so begins their unusual and charming friendship (although William might never overtly refer to it as such). Despite the heavy subject matter, there are moments of delightful levity. Much of such humour is mined from the stark contrast between sunny, smiling Solo and the cantankerous old coot William; for example, William cramped in the back seat with a pot-smoking friend of Solo, while rap music blares on the radio. Similarly, the absurdity of nicknaming William “Big Dawg” cannot be appreciated without observing the physical countenance of William. Other humorous moments come from their shared traits, such as confusion over cell phone technology. And while I rarely say this about children in movies, Solo’s step-daughter is a true joy. She is just sassy enough (“I understand more than you!”) without being cutesy or manufactured, and manages to crumble even William’s defenses. And my own. Grumble grumble, stupid charming kid.

However, just as we see William slowly warm to Solo’s endless optimism and cheer, we also witness how William’s death wish weighs on Solo’s heart and mind. As the end of the week approaches, Solo becomes more desperate and afraid as he grapples with how to help his friend. And here is where I believe Bahrani excels: the film refuses to take the expected route, constantly challenging our easy answers to such problems. There are no simplistic resolutions here; as deeply emotional matters are complex by nature, solutions must be complex. Bahrani doesn’t pretend otherwise to let his audience off the hook – he forces you to question your beliefs about suicide, the right to die, and how far friendship can and should extend.

The presentation of the film is stark. Bahrani is an unobtrusive director merely observing the action, giving the sense that one is directly involved in the action. Likewise, he uses no score. When well done, I find this technique to be especially powerful; music is so often used in film to manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way, regardless of whether or not that emotion is earned. Without score, the director must rely on the narrative and characters to elicit a genuine emotional response to what is happening on-screen. Film score can also give the audience a place to hide from uncomfortable feelings, reminding us that it’s only a movie. Without that refuge, the realism of the action hits us harder than it otherwise would.

[SPOILER ALERT!] I thought I had this movie nailed. I knew it was about Solo saving William. Perhaps the most elegant and beautiful part of Goodbye Solo is the end; we learn that the movie is not about Solo saving William, it is about Solo letting him go. Der, it’s right there in the title! When Solo releases the stick into the updraft, we can see that he has made peace with William’s decision. Despite the fact that he befriended William with altruistic motives, Solo has gained from their friendship as well (including confidence for his own dreams), and his family emerges stronger than before. While the ending could be looked upon as depressing, I instead found it incredibly hopeful and uplifting. Now, where else can you find a feel-good movie about suicide?

Favourite Scene: The ending was so powerful, I don’t want to give anything more away.

Key Quote: “Do you know if you throw a stick off Blowing Rock, it comes right back to you?”

Fun Fact: Goodbye Solo won the International Critic’s Film Critic’s Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Until the next,


~ by K. Harker on March 21, 2011.

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