Almost as soon as he appears in Goodbye Solo, the optimistic Solo is confronted with another perspective, belonging to a weary fare named William.
Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané) wants to fly. Specifically, he's studying to be a flight attendant, hoping to make a living and travel beyond his current environs, Winston Salem, NC. A taxi driver with family still living in Senegal and about to have a child with his girlfriend Quiera (Carmen Leyva), Solo is cheerful to a fault, looking forward to a future that, however unknown, promises "a better day" with each tomorrow.
Almost as soon as he appears in Goodbye Solo, the cabbie is confronted with another perspective, belonging to a fare named William (Red West). Weathered and weary, William sits in the back seat, framed by the rear window and Solo's shoulder. "Why you laughing?" he asks, at which point Solo, unable to tamp down his broad smile, insists, "I'm not laughing." William harrumphs, regroups, and offers a thousand dollars if Solo will drive him to Blowing Rock on May 20th. Solo's curiosity is piqued immediately: "You gonna chill with the birds?" he asks, "You like birds, big dog?" William's ravaged face says otherwise, and Solo, glimpsing him in the rearview mirror, pauses. "You're not gonna jump, right?"
With this brief, seemingly simple scene, Ramin Bahrani's third feature sets in motion a series of complex tones and characters as they grapple with hopes and limits. An inversion of the premise of Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (1997), in which the cab driver asked fares to assist in his suicide, Goodbye Solo takes Solo's increasingly nuanced view of the ways disappointments can shape and reshape a life. Initially seeming genetically inclined to see the good in every situation, Solo is generous and perceptive in his every interaction. Nearly irresistibly charming, he cajoles information and favors from his dispatcher, the perpetually off-screen Pork Chop (Jamill 'Peaches' Fowler), in order to make sure he's the one to pick up William when he wants to go to the movies or the bank. As he helps William move from his apartment to a motel room, Solo wonders, "You have family here, man. Why don't you move in with them?" William's nonanswer leads to Solo's lamentation on the state of relations in the U.S. "Why don't families stay together in America?" he wonders, asserting that his own family will take care of him back in Senegal when he's old. A passing close-up reveals William's melancholy as he suggests his "people" don't want to see him. "They're your blood," Solo asserts. "And I'm sure they want to see you."
The film is full of visual details, gestures and expressions, photos and rearview mirror images, as Solo notices everything, absorbing, comprehending, and eventually, worrying. When Quiera kicks him out of their apartment following an argument, he moves into William's room, sitting behind him on a cheap sofa as the older man gazes blankly into the TV screen. "Can you see me?" he asks, partly playfully. "Stay out of my shit and leave me alone," grumps William. IT's good enough for Solo, who means to keep watch on his new friend.
At the same time, he keeps up with Quiera's nine-year-old daughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), with whom he shares a lovely, mutually educational, and deeply felt relationship. Her new cell phone has a camera in it, and so she sends him photos along with text messages, one shot she's taken of him reinscribing his earnest exuberance. When he gets the photo, Solo is delighted, sharing it with William, now riding in the front seat with him. Though he resists glancing at this blissful portrait, so exactly the opposite of his own face, even the old man has to smile.
Goodbye Solo does so many things right. Like Bahrani’s Chop Shop and Man Push Cart, it keeps focus on the difficulties of the immigrant's experience, on Solo's frustrations as well as his ambitions, on the contradictions that undergird his relationships with Quiera and William, and on the careful thinking he puts into making sense of all these disparate pieces of his life. Watching other customers in his back seat -- say, a wiry-bodied Caucasian man who smokes crack while soliciting oral sex from his young, dark-skinned companion -- Solo is faced daily with what's ugly and unhappy: as she giggles behind him, off-screen, the camera remains fixed on Solo's face, fallen now, for the moment.
Though William refuses to say what's gone wrong for him and sometimes takes out his rage and sadness on Solo, their friendship makes its own kind of sense. Both are moved by Alex, whose wisdom is not precocious-movie-childlike, but rather, recognizably warm, self-confident, and inquisitive ("I understand more than you," she tells Solo, having come up in the States surrounded by adults ever close to financial or other trouble). Her insights and comforts bode well for Solo's own unknown future, whether or not he can see it so clearly. She embodies another means to flight, apart from his flight attendant's exam or his nervousness over being a father. It's not often that a relationship between a man and a girl is so delicately rendered or so convincing. In Alex, Solo can see himself reflected, her faith grounding him wherever he lands.