There's hope yet for world cinema if an Iranian-American director can take the premise of an Iranian film, set it in North Carolina, cast the lead roles with an African fashion model and Elvis Presley's former bodyguard, and produce something utterly new and beautiful. Goodbye Solo (Roadside Attractions), the third film written and directed by Ramin Bahrani ( Man Push Cart, Chop Shop) owes its basic story line to the 1997 Abbas Kiarostami film Taste of Cherry, but it's neither a straight-up remake, a parody, nor an homage. A film of great intelligence and quiet assurance, Goodbye Solo exhilarates without ever trafficking in easy uplift.
The wildly charismatic Souléymane Sy Savané plays Solo, a Senegalese cab driver in Winston-Salem, N.C., who's studying to become a flight attendant. One night he picks up William (Red West), a gruff, 70-year-old loner who's immune to Solo's good-natured banter. William wants only to be dropped off at a local cinema and picked up two hours later. On the way there, he offers Solo a curious deal: In a week's time, he wants to be driven to Blowing Rock, a peak overlooking a sheer drop-off, and left there. After all but admitting that he plans to leap to his death from the rock, William offers Solo $1,000 to set the date, no questions asked. Instead, Solo sets about insinuating himself into the old man's life and creating a friendship by fiat. He introduces William to his wife, Quiera (Carmen Leyva), and her 9-year-old daughter, Alex (Diane Franco Galindo); takes him out to shoot pool; and, when the pregnant Quiera throws him out after an argument, moves into William's motel room.
All the while, Solo is conducting a benevolent espionage mission: In an attempt to fathom the source of William's depression, he searches the old man's bags for family pictures and has his pills checked at a pharmacy to see if he's suffering from a terminal illness. Solo simply can't accept the notion of giving up on life; he's convinced that, once William realizes that at least one person truly cares about him, he'll reverse his plans. William, for his part, remains a mystery. He seems to be warming to Solo's generous overtures, but when he senses that his privacy is being invaded, he lashes out with unexpected savagery.
The relationship between these two men—one who's given up on life, another who's endlessly and miraculously resilient—could easily recall one of those "magical Negro" films, in which an isolated and grieving Caucasian is rescued from himself or herself by a spiritually grounded emissary from the Third World. (The Visitor and In America come to mind.) But Bahrani is too smart, and too compassionate, for that; his script, co-written with Bahareh Azmi, allows both characters their complexity, their contradictions, and ultimately, their privacy. We never learn just what in William's past has brought him to this point, nor why Solo's usually smiling face occasionally slackens into an expression of the purest sadness.
Goodbye Solo is as far as you can get from a tale of humanist redemption, but it's kept buoyant by Savané's embodiment of that rarest of things, a good (but not simple) man. Solo leads his immigrant working-class life with style and grace. This is a man who, as he, William, and young Alex are about to tuck into bologna sandwiches in their dump of a motel room, makes sure to wish them all, "Bon appétit." That graciousness extends to Bahrani's sense of place: The one-story brick houses and tobacco warehouses of Winston-Salem, where the director grew up, are filmed (by cinematographer Michael Simmonds) with dignity, never condescendingly milked for "local color."
The film's narrative suspense—will Solo drive William to that fateful appointment at Blowing Rock?—relies on a clunky visual device in which Solo repeatedly consults his calendar as the preset date approaches. ("Who runs their finger along a blank calendar page like that?" complained my viewing companion, who likes to obsess about these details.) Yet, if the will-he-or-won't-he setup has a whiff of contrivance to it, the climactic scene, set against a backdrop of natural grandeur worthy of King Lear, upends your every expectation.