Tag Archives: chop shop

Goodbye Solo

The phrase “goodbye Solo” is never uttered out loud in Goodbye Solo, but in the film’s key scene it is the central sentiment. And it is conveyed in an old man’s eyes. It’s not really there, but it’s implied. And the same could be said for Goodbye Solo at large: it’s a film of remarkable restraint and subtle suggestion, where so many “points” aren’t hammered home as much as they are delicately positioned for us to coax them into place. It’s a rare film in the way that it knocks you down without ever having to so much as blow in your direction.

Goodbye Solo is the new film from director Ramin Bahrani, who Roger Ebert calls “the new great American director.” Bahrani previously directed Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007), which was one of the best films I saw last year. Goodbye Solo is equally impressive, though in a more understated way. The film is so ridiculously earnest and straightforward—with no shred of indie exhibitionism—that you might not expect the depth and power that it ultimately communicates. But take Ebert’s word for it when he says, at the end of his review: “Wherever you live, when this film opens, it will be the best film in town.”

Like Chop Shop, a neo-realist gem in which we are allowed to peak in on the lives of impoverished youngsters in some Godforsaken corner of the Bronx, Goodbye Solo plops us down in medias res into the lives of two people who couldn’t be more different and yet find themselves tied together for a short time on life’s long road (in this case, in modern-day Winston-Salem, NC). They are William (Red West), an aging white curmudgeon, and Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), an uber-friendly cab driver who hails from Senegal and becomes William’s preferred driver.

The film gives us little background on these guys. What we know about them is pretty much what they know about each other. Which is not a lot. There are things we want to know—the secrets and history and heartbreaks of these characters—but they are elusive to us because they are elusive to each other. The film is about the relationship between these two men in particular, but it’s also about relationships at large: how even when we need each other, care for each other, and want to be close to each other, we often make friendship more difficult than it need be. It’s hard to really let ourselves be known, even when that’s what we know we need.

Solo reaches out to William and really wants to be his friend. William, cantankerous and unfriendly, puts up walls and refuses to let Solo get too close. And yet the two of them forge a bond, due in large part to Solo’s persistence: he is worried that William is suicidal and wants to help him work through whatever issues he is struggling with. Solo does his best, but in the end William is too committed to a private ownership of his suffering. Like so many of us who prefer to keep our friends and loved ones at arm’s length, William is stubbornly solitary and aggressively distant. He is the one who should be named “solo.”

In the film, it is clear that Solo and William need each other. For whatever reason, fate brought them together at a crucial juncture in their lives. We assume it is because Solo is meant to save William. But alas, you can’t save people who are not willing to save themselves. It’s a relief, really, that Goodbye Solo doesn’t turn into yet another “immigrant teaches old white American how to really live” film. Rather it is a more realistic examination of how two souls converge, connect in fits and starts, and then go their separate ways.

No relationship lasts forever, and sometimes it’s more painful than productive to get wrapped up in another person’s life. But I think the message of Goodbye Solo is that we must seek each other out and love people persistently, even if we’re ill-matched, even if it’s doubtful whether we’ll be lifelong friends (how many “lifelong friends” are any of us granted in life, anyway?).

It might only be for a short time, and in the end we probably won’t transform someone’s life. But there’s something to be said for just being there with someone, for a time. You can only do so much, but sometimes a little can go a long way.

Five Films For Our Hard Times

This weekend is the Academy Awards. It’s the lavish yearly spectacle that rewards big budget costume dramas, trend films, and all things glamorous and prestigey. Meanwhile, the country languishes in economic despair, with the market at 6 year lows, jobs being slashed at record pace, and middle and lower-income families struggling to make ends meet. It’s been a rough year for the economy, and there have been several wonderful independent films that seem to have uncannily captured the economic state of things.

The following is a list of five films that came out in 2008 that the Oscars largely overlooked, but which collectively put a very evocative, human face on the struggles of the day. These films portray average people doing their best to survive. They are people without jobs, with kids to feed, facing hardship after hardship. In this way, they are films that represent the larger human struggle—to make a living and support oneself and one’s family by whatever means necessary. It’s an uphill battle; the foes are many. But the human will to survive is a strong one. These films present snapshots of what are likely very common stories in this ever-weakening economy—sometimes very bleak and sometimes curiously hopeful, but always compelling because we can so relate. They are beautiful films that I highly recommend.

Frozen River (dir. Courtney Hunt)
In her arresting directorial debut, Courtney Hunt presents us with a harrowing tale of a mother in upstate New York whose husband has left her with two kids and no money. The mother (Melissa Leo, in a deservingly Oscar-nominated role), in much need of quick cash for the new double-wide trailer she’s ordered, partners with a similarly hard-up single mother on a Mohawk reservation to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Canadian border into the U.S. Of course, it all turns very grim, though the film is not without some glimmers of hope.

Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
This is a short, quick, devastating film about a twenty-something woman (Michelle Williams) who gradually loses everything. She is poor, alone, scared, and has only her dog Lucy to comfort her. Set in the Pacific Northwest and directed by Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), Wendy peers in on a life of quiet despair and world-weariness that in many senses represents a broader archetype of America in 2008. It’s a wise, loving, heartbreaking film about what we must do just to survive in an increasingly cynical, menacing world.

Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer)
Ballast is a simple, life-affirming (in the true sense) film about how we pull our lives together after tragedy. It’s a very quiet (sometimes silent), organic-looking film with untrained actors and very beautiful location photography somewhere in the Mississippi Delta. The film—which follows a trio of downtrodden African Americans after a crushing death in the family—is about resurfacing, destabilizing, and regaining our balance (hence the title). It’s a film that makes no excuses for its characters and yet allows us to sympathize with their plight and root for them as they ever-so gradually find ways to survive, earn honest money, and move on with life.

Chop Shop (dir. Ramin Bahrani)
Though this film is set in New York City, in the shadow of Yankees Stadium, it feels remarkably other-worldy (Third-worldly, actually). But that’s the point. Tapping into the spirit of De Sica-style Italian neo-realism, Chop Shop, Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani puts a lens on the unseen, difficult lives of the American underclass. Focusing on children who are mostly fending for themselves in largely illegal money-making ventures, Chop Shop is a compelling film that makes familiar and humane something that is—fortunately or unfortunately—very unfamiliar and alien to most of us.

The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

In the role that will most likely win him the Academy Award for best actor, Mickey Rourke stars as an aging professional wrestler past his glory days who must find new purposes and means of living. Directed by the impressive Darren Aronofsky but mostly just a showpiece for Rourke, The Wrestler is a heartbreaking look at the loneliness, self-doubt, and cycle of self-destruction that accompanies many lives when they enter that “past-my-prime” phase. It’s also a film that could be easily read as an allegory of down-on-itself America—a fact that is comically elaborated in this parody of The Wrestler trailer.