Ramin Bahrani’s previous feature, Chop Shop, takes place in the shadows of Shea Stadium in New York, where a young boy scrapes together a living by hustling drivers into one of a row of body shops operated with dubious legality. What’s striking about the movie—and what led critic A.O. Scott to include it among a wave of “Neo-neo realist” films in American independent film—is that it doesn’t seem to take place in this country. Or rather, it takes place within a narrow enclave of society, entirely populated by immigrants, that doesn’t officially exist in the cultural mainstream. Bahrani’s follow-up, Goodbye Solo, isn’t as revelatory, but it continues his persistent, sympathetic documentation of first-generation immigrants on the margins of society. And in an indie world too long dominated by navel-gazers, Bahrani’s work has become an important corrective.
An infectious, compassionate embodiment of the chatty cabbie archetype, Souléymane Sy Savané stars as a Senegalese cab driver in Winston-Salem who brings an unflagging (and often heartbreaking) optimism to the job. When irascible 70-year-old Red West steps into his taxi, Savané takes up the challenge of trying to cheer the old man up, but he more than meets his match. In addition to hiring him as a regular driver, West offers Savané $1,000 to pick him up at a motel in two weeks’ time, take him to a mountaintop in the Smokies, and leave him there to end his life. As Savané comes to care about his passenger, he uncovers some painful revelations about the source of West’s angst.
The premise is the mirror image of Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste Of Cherry, which had a driver asking passengers to assist in his suicide, but Bahraini goes the conventional route by detailing the give-and-take between these two men and the painful understanding they have to reach with each other. What distinguishes Goodbye Solo, beyond Savané’s larger-than-life personality bumping up against West’s intractable curmudgeon, is the continued particularity of Bahrani’s work. In just three films, he’s introduced us to a Pakistani street coffee vendor (Man Push Cart), a Latino orphan working in a black-market body shop, and now a Senegalese cabbie. It’s been nice—and certainly novel—to make their acquaintance.