Over the course of three features (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and now Goodbye Solo), filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has established a niche for himself chronicling unique communities of American immigrants, focusing on humanity and small everyday pleasures over the typical miserablism seen in most indie films about struggling immigrants. Goodbye Solo takes that approach and applies it to a much more plot-driven and conventional narrative than in Bahrani’s previous films, and while he once again shines a light on a fascinating corner of the American experience, he does so while telling a disappointingly contrived story.
The immigrant community depicted here is Africans in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, represented by Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a cheery Senegalese cab driver who sees life as a long string of opportunities. Solo’s casually multicultural life—his Mexican wife and stepdaughter, his black American friends, his knowledge of a dozen languages—is a beautiful representation of modern America, and his struggles are touchingly portrayed. But Bahrani has Solo spend much of the movie trying to ingratiate himself into the life of one of his passengers, a cranky old white guy named William (Red West), who hires Solo to drive him to the top of a mountain where it seems likely he’ll commit suicide.
The unlikely friendship of the soulful immigrant and the uptight American is a hoary cliché, although Bahrani at least handles its outcome with grace. But it’s an unfortunate concession to the mainstream that feels out of place next to the evocative portrait of Solo’s existence. The movie would have been better off with Solo solo.