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On Movies: Say hello to 'Goodbye Solo'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2009 - Blowing Rock rises to a knobby peak 1,500 feet above the John's River Gorge in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina. The winds that roar through the gorge often swirl upward around the rock, blowing whatever is cast over the edge "back up into the sky," as someone says in "Goodbye Solo."

This deceptively simple independent film begins with a young black cab driver in Winston Salem, N.C., picking up a 70-year-old white man named William. As they are heading for William's destination, the older man offers the cabby $1,000 to pick him up in a week and drive him to Blowing Rock. The driver, a relentlessly friendly Senegalese immigrant named Solo, asks, jokingly, "What are you going to do, jump off?"

When William refuses to answer, stubbornly clenching his lips and staring straight ahead as if into oblivion, Solo is alarmed. He immediately begins trying to talk the man out of going to Blowing Rock. William refuses to respond, but the cabby is, to say the least, persistent.

Over the coming week, as William settles his affairs, selling most of his belongings, closing his bank account and moving into a motel, the cabdriver essentially stalks him. At one point Solo bullies another cab driver into refusing to take William to Blowing Rock. William tries to get rid of Solo, but Solo will not be gotten rid of. After a fight with his wife, Solo moves into William's motel room and keeps trying to break through the man's stolid surface to reach his heart. One evening, they have a few beers and play a little pool, but the next morning William is as unresponsive as ever to Solo's repeated, even annoying, overtures at friendship.

If this were a Hollywood movie, there would finally come a moment of epiphany when William realizes that Solo is his friend, and means him nothing but well. The two men would share a hearty just-won-the-pennant kind of hug, and William would now have a reason to live. This does not happen. William warms up to Solo just about enough to put up with him, and perhaps to recognize that the two of them have something in common - simple loneliness, if nothing else. William also softens a bit when he meets Solo's bright and lively 9-year-old daughter. There are hints, but no more than that, that she reminds William of his own daughter.

A couple of men driving around the dingier sections of Winston Salem in a beat-up taxi, the passenger barely speaking while the driver chatters away like a bird, hardly seems the stuff of a compelling movie, yet "Goodbye Solo" is one of those films that lingers in the memory long after you have left the theater. One reason is the empathy created by the actors playing the two main characters.

The West African actor Souleymane Sy Savane gives Solo the energy and optimism - and the persistence - that has characterized successive waves of immigrants to America. The character is a pain in the neck, and he talks in flourishes like a smalltime con man, but his energy alone summons up grudging admiration. And Red West, a former bodyguard for Elvis Presley who got into acting through stunt work, is like the protagonist in an old-fashioned country song. Seemingly alone in the world, beneath a battered surface that looks as tough as rawhide, he is fighting to avoid falling to pieces.

"Goodbye Solo" was directed with an admirable lack of fuss by Ramin Bahrani, an American of Iranian ancestry whose previous two films, "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop," have also focused on immigrants. Bahrani has the good sense to trust his actors, to linger on their faces even when there is no dialogue.

The film is thought-provoking and open-ended, even mysterious in both its actions and its themes. It clearly is commenting on the dismissive treatment of old people in America, as compared to the family support given in the older worlds of Africa and the Middle East. But it also seems to be asking, What do we owe our fellow human beings? And how far should we go in helping them to find not only what they want, or think they want, but what they need?

'Shall We Kiss?'

The French, as has been noted countless times, seem more interested than we in the emotional - as opposed to the physical - intricacies of amour. Some French movies about love and its obsessions translate into American; some don't. "Shall We Kiss?" mostly does.

Emmanuel Mouret directs and co-stars with Virginie Ledoyen in this amusing, fluffy tale of friends who think they can get away with having sex without falling in love. Fat chance. Unlike "Goodbye Solo," "Shall We Kiss?" will completely flee your mind within seconds after the theater lights go up. But it should leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling that might last all the way to the parking lot. You could do worse.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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