There was a time when Ramin Bahrani was considered one of the most exciting young directors of his generation. He was given boundless praise by both critics and the industry, as well as audiences, all of which responded with nothing but the most sincere praise for his work, which signalled a flourishing directorial career that would likely be one of the best we had seen for many years. Recently, Bahrani has become more scarce in his output, and the films he has made in the past decade or so have been of varying quality, lacking the substance and nuance of the earlier work that made him such a reputable source of raw artistic integrity. However, if we look back at the films that allowed him to break through in the first place, it’s easy to be reminded about the incredible amount of talent present in every frame of his work. His crowning achievement may be Goodbye Solo, his third feature film and one that was the final in an unofficial trilogy (alongside Man Push Cart and Chop Shop) that focused on the plight of the downtrodden in relation to their surroundings, which are supposedly sanctuaries for those who struggle, but in reality often contribute more to their daily challenges than anything else. A beautiful, funny and heartfelt story centred around a good-natured and empathetic Senegalese immigrant working as a taxicab driver somewhere in the Deep South, Goodbye Solo is an astonishing work of pure human compassion, a riveting and complex odyssey that evokes genuine emotions and takes us on a thrilling journey into the heart of one man’s journey, one in which he aims to not only do his job well, but also change the lives of those he meets along the way, since he realizes that without empathy, there would be very little opportunity for any of us to succeed in this hostile world.
Bahrani’s films are all diverse and focus on a range of themes, but there are certain concepts that have found their way into a few of his stories. The immigrant experience is one that is very close to the director’s heart, likely as a result of being a child of immigrants himself, which gave him both the insights into the trials and tribulations of those who seek a better life, as well as the sincere compassion to tell their stories in a way that was not heavy-handed, but still portrayed the harsh realities faced by these individuals. Goodbye Solo is very much supported by the idea of exploring the life of an immigrant in the United States, following his journey from a moderately successful taxicab driver, to someone who does whatever he can to realize his ambitions, even if they ultimately fail to materialize. There is something to be said about how Bahrani portrays the concept of The American Dream – the oft-quoted and widely-sought sense of freedom, success and prosperity on which the entire immigrant experience is supposedly based. Naturally, we know how crooked this concept can actually be, and while it is possible to achieve radical success in seeking out a better life in the United States, it is neither inevitable nor likely that anyone can attain it without some combination of laboriously hard work and pure luck, which is precisely what Bahrani explores throughout this film, which looks at the character of Souleymane Diop, otherwise known as Solo, as he works his way towards his dream, which would be to work for an airline, someone perpetually in service to others, but in a way where he can actually make a difference, all the while being constantly in motion, never stagnant in a single place. Goodbye Solo is one of the strongest explorations of the immigrant experience we’ve seen in several years, and a work that constantly builds on common themes and develops existing ideas, rather than aiming to find new ways to tell the same story.
Cinema has always been very fond of the working class, but there haven’t been too many filmmakers that have fully captured the true scope of their struggles and triumphs, since there is such a narrow boundary between insightful exploration of their daily lives, and outright exploitation of the challenges that face those on the margins of society. Bahrani implicitly understands that in order to tell such stories, it isn’t enough to be compassionate, and that a filmmaker also needs to be fully invested in realizing these stories without depending on harrowing depictions of poverty, or focusing on only the miseries that these people face. He captures the joy and sadness of the working class so beautifully in Goodbye Solo, which is as much an exploration of the day-to-day activities of an immigrant in a menial job as it is a life-affirming, endearing celebration of individuality. We don’t often find this kind of approach with classical kitchen-sink realism, a term that does apply to Bahrani’s work, but only marginally, since there is much more nuance to his work than simply straightforward, unfurnished depictions of the struggles of his characters trapped in a particular social class. The director uses the overarching milieu not as a crutch to define the story, but rather as a supplement that exists mainly to guide it, developing on ideas in a manner that is natural and heartfelt – and such an approach brings out as much joy as it does sadness. Bahrani’s conception of this story was only half of what makes Goodbye Solo so compelling, since the true success of the film comes in how he balances all the emotions, creating a vibrant and meaningful tapestry of the protagonist’s life, allowing us to observe his journey of self-discovery in vivid detail.
The practice of cinematic realism has many key components, and one that is often used (and is thus seen as indicative of a true realist tale) is the use of non-professional actors. There is a belief that casting those with very little or no prior acting experience contributes to the authenticity of the production, and removes the obstacles that would come with having recognizable actors, which could distract from the illusion many realist filmmakers depend on with their stories. Goodbye Solo serves as the acting debut for Souléymane Sy Savané, an Ivorian immigrant that had previously worked as a flight attendant (which was reflected in the character he plays here) before pursuing a career in acting. Bahrani clearly saw something immensely valuable in Sy Savané when casting the role, since every frame feels like a celebration of his immense talents, capturing a very distinct quality that we don’t see very often. There is a rawness to his performance, but it never feels like he is straining – he is undeniably talented, and the screen pulsates with a very pure energy whenever he appears on it. He delivers an extraordinarily charismatic performance, one that proves how some of the best work is done by those who never had any formal training, or who may not have a lot of experience, but make up for it in pure dedication to their craft. It’s not often we find an actor who is so formally unpolished, but yet who convinces us of his genuine gifts that we simply cannot look away whenever he is on screen – and filtering all of this into his portrayal of a man who does his best to maintain a positive outlook in the hopes of changing as many lives as he can, we find one of the most incredibly complex and committed performances of the past two decades, which is not only a credit to Sy Savané’s incredible performance, but also to Bahrani, who created such an unforgettable character and constructed this beautiful world in which he inhabits, one that is so much more enticing when populated by characters like Solo and the rest of the cast of this wonderful film.
Goodbye Solo is a work fueled simultaneously by incredible empathy and an astonishing level of imagination. Bahrani is a masterful filmmaker who has a firm grasp on the collective cultural pulse, being able to weave together so many different lives, allowing them to intersect in ways we may not have ever imagined possible. There’s an honesty to his work that goes beyond even the most sobering social realist dramas – he never employs anything even vaguely fantastical or far-fetched, but yet his films feel almost magical in how they depict the daily affairs of people who have been marginalized by society. Characters like Solo often reside in the shadows in other films – they are merely peripheral individuals in the stories of those who the industry has deemed more appealing and interesting. Yet, when someone takes the time to actually explore this world, we find an astounding amount of elegance and intricacy being used to tell the story of an ordinary man who simply longs for a better life, and believes that the only way to accomplish this is through actively spreading positivity, which often yields unexpected results, as is evident throughout this film. In no uncertain terms, Goodbye Solo is a masterpiece of contemporary independent cinema, a work that is clearly defined and memorable, but which draws on a lot of unique social and cultural commentary. It is never overwrought, and rather than forcing us to feel emotions that simply aren’t there, the film does its best to establish a clear and concise method of storytelling that draws out the most meaningful and impactful details, each one a delicate and well-formed piece of the existential puzzle that Bahrani and his collaborators manage to so effortlessly convey on screen. It’s a precise and charming film that is not afraid to bring up difficult discussions and ultimately proves to be one of the more impactful works of social realism we have encountered in recent decades.