Seventy-year-old William (Red West), whose hard life is carved into his lined face and look-right-through-you eyes, wants to die. And he offers cab driver Solo (Souléymane Sy Savené), an upbeat Senegalese immigrant to Winston-Salem, N.C., $1,000 to drive him one-way to the Blowing Rock Park at a imminent future date where that ends can be achieved. That's the entire story of director Ramin Bahrani's Goodbye Solo-and it's introduced in the opening scene-but it's not what the movie is about. What Solo is about is so moving and elusive that it's difficult to address without lapsing into the sort of sentimental spiritual hogwash that is proselytized door-to-door on Saturday mornings or preyed upon by television's late-night desperation ads.
Neither Bahrani nor Solo venture into such manufactured emotions, even though his movies are some of the more moving cinematic experiences of recent years. In but three features-including 2005's Man Push Cart and 2007's Chop Shop-Bahrani has frankly explored the American immigrant experience, where rough lives are tempered by hope for a better life through hard work and perseverance. That dream powers Solo, who Savené invests with an unflappable charisma wrapped around a complex inner life. Solo initially comes across as possessing a limited English vocabulary, so often do slang-y affirmations and colloquialisms come out of his mouth, but Savené slyly turns such empty remarks as "It's all good, bro" into a mantra-like armor. He wants to be a flight attendant, which rankles his pregnant Latina wife Quiera (Carmen Leyva), even though her daughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo) helps Solo with his English and studying. And no matter how difficult his life becomes-which it does-Solo gathers his resolve and tries to smile in the face of the storm.
William is through smiling in this life, no matter how much Solo tries to cheer him up or change his mind about his plans-which Solo futilely attempts with a puppy's pestering and naive insistence. Bahrani defiantly permits Goodbye Solo to play out exactly as its opening scene announced it would, taking Solo and William-and the audience-through an intensely personal relationship in a very brief stretch of two people's lives.
Grace is one of the most difficult moods to achieve in art without resorting to quasi-religious balderdash or offensively inoffensive claims to spirituality, but Solo flirts with that ephemeral state through a display of common humanity. Chop Shop still feels like the more accomplished movie, but with Goodbye Solo Bahrani transcends the immigrant experience and reaches for the universal.