Sunday, July 12, 2009

Don't read this review!

The title of this particular blog post was one used many years ago by theater critic Robert Brustein of The New Republic. He was writing about Marsha Norman's great play `Night Mother, which is about suicide, and which is difficult to write about without giving away much of the story, the hook, the surprise.

The same goes for Ramin Bahrani's wonderful and bracingly honest new film Goodbye, Solo, which is like Norman's play in that it never condescends to the viewer by cheating on reality; so if you're one of those who gets all wound up about spoilers, consider this fair warning. It goes where others dare not; it heads down a hard road, and refuses to turn back, or even blink. If you haven't seen it, go to one of the handful of theaters across the country where it is now playing or soon will be. Or wait for the DVD on August 25.

Set in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the story involves Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a cabbie from Senegal, who picks up a moody passenger, William (Red West, whose face looks like a crumpled road map of hard living). William offers him a mysterious deal: a thousand dollars to take him, at a specified later date, to the North Carolina mountain known as Blowing Rock, where he will likely end it all, or so he implies.

Implication is how William communicates; he keeps quiet, smokes, and says only what he must. Solo, by contrast, can't keep quiet for a minute. He's a good-natured, lively fellow who sings, laughs, jokes, and has a native belief in the importance of family, where people work hard to take care of their children and the children in turn take care of their elders. Surely, he says, William's family will take care of him. He is both ambitious (he is studying to become a flight attendant) and care-free; faithful that troubles will work themselves out. William's offer of easy money troubles him, as he can definitely use the money but doesn't want to be party to a man's self-destruction. Instead, he takes it upon himself to become a Good Samaritan to his new passenger. Over the weeks that follow, Solo (who is trying to hold his own family together) temporarily leaves his pregnant wife to become William's constant driver and usually unwanted companion, even moving in with him in a motel.

Yes, you think you know where it's all going. We've seen this kind of warm-hearted movie a hundred times: youth vs. age, black vs. white, joy vs. sorrow; surely, life will triumph. Weary old William will come to his senses, everything will work out, and he and Solo will become buddies. It's set in the fall; hey, maybe it will end with a Thanksgiving scene.

But Goodbye, Solo is simply not that kind of bird. The triumph of Bahareh Azimi's superbly subtle script is that, in effect, it departs from the script we're used to. It takes a different, perhaps more honest, definitely more original route that not only avoids the easy answer, but respects the mystery of the situation, and it is something of a mystery. Just what is William's problem anyway? We don't really know. We're left to guess a great deal about William, not because the part is underwritten, but because he's a man in the shadows. We suspect, from his cooking skills, that he was probably a chef. We also know there has been a rupture, somewhere, in his domestic life, although we are spared the details; all we know is that in his spare time he is fixated on a young man who is likely his grandson, but who doesn't know William is his grandfather.

We also know, by the steely determination in his eyes, without William ever having to say it, that he knows he must end his life, either as personal punishment or because it is, to him, the only remaining option. He's hard-headed, stubborn, and can be violent when pushed; maybe that also has something to with why he's here looking to end his life, and why no family has come looking for him. We don't know if he's the good guy or not. We don't know if this is a situation that can be fixed.

One of the most refreshing things about this film is that it's set in the middle of nowhere, a nowhere with which I'm somewhat familiar. I have relatives spread out all across that stretch of North Carolina from Winston-Salem to Blowing Rock and into East Tennessee, which I still visit every couple of years. The fog lifting over the Blue Ridge Parkway and the rich fall colors of the trees are sights I know well. I even lived in the area briefly and quite miserably, although it's not necessarily the kind of territory you associate with suicidal depression. Although the film captures the environment, this is a story that could happen anywhere. That's one of it's charms.

Like last year's Ballast, this is one of those tough, smart films that are inspiring much the way Italian Neo-Realist films are. It restores my faith in independent film-making, and it suggests that the best films in America are coming from flyover country.

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