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Red West, left, and Souleymane Sy Savane in Goodbye Solo, which feels like an Iranian film, in the way it blends concerns both cosmic and every day.

4 out of 4 stars


Goodbye Solo

  • Directed by Ramin Bahrani
  • Written by Bahareh Azimi and Ramin Bahrani
  • Starring Souleymane Sy Savane and Red West
  • Classification: 14A

At the beginning of Goodbye Solo , a friendly African-born taxi driver is travelling at night in the city of Winston-Salem, N.C. His fare is a 70-ish, tough-looking white man named William.

A deal is in progress: William wants to be picked up in two week's time for a trip to Blowing Rock, a two-hour drive away in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He gives the driver a $100 deposit on a $1,000 fee for the trip. The driver, whose name is Solo, laughs it off as a joke but when the old man says he'll get another driver, he takes him seriously. Solo suspects the old man intends to jump to his death and William fails to deny it. The scene ends with the taxi's tail lights fading around a curve.

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All that information is learned in the first 21/2 minutes of Goodbye Solo, in one long take in which the stationary camera watches the two men talking. As director Ramin Bahrani said in a first-person article on, he believes that "most audiences read a synopsis before seeing a film" and will know the basic plot before even going to the cinema.

With that out of the way, he concentrates on interactions and telling images to create a fascinating parable about respect and dignity. What Bahrani does isn't flashy but it is terrific, careful cinematic storytelling, as he builds the sense of a town, and the ways people live and see their place in the world.

Goodbye Solo is the third feature from Bahrani ( Man Push Cart , Chop Shop ), an American-born filmmaker of Iranian parents. Goodbye Solo , which he co-wrote with Bahareh Azimi, feels very much like an Iranian film, in the way it blends concerns both cosmic and every day. Specifically, it seems to owe a debt to Abbas Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry . The effect is so casual it feels improvised, but the technique is painstaking. Bahrani spent months in Winston-Salem working with the actors, and the opening shot alone took 24 takes to get right.

The cab driver, Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane ), is a Senegalese man, living in North Carolina with a Mexican wife and his nine-year-old adolescent stepdaughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo). The couple has a baby of their own on the way but their relationship is rocky, partly because Solo, ambitious and eager to learn, wants to train to be a flight attendant. The metaphor of the flight attendant, helping those prepared to take flight, is powerful without being obtrusive. Solo decides to watch over William, to insinuate himself in his life and try to change his mind.

Though African by birth, Solo's pretty much the embodiment of the American dream. He's an engaging hustler who relies on his charm. He calls every male "Big Dog" and calls the woman dispatcher at his cab company "Pork Chop." He's one of those people who are always performing, switching his speech from hip-hop slang to formal conversation in mid-sentence, depending on who he's trying to please.

William is played by Red West, an occasional actor ( Walking Tall, Road House), a friend and bodyguard to the late Elvis Presley and a haunting presence on the screen. Though we learn few of the details in his life, there's a palpable sense of grief burning in his distant gaze. Solo takes him on as his project. He persuades the taxi dispatcher to put all of William's calls through to him. William repeatedly goes to the local movie theatre, which holds a particular fascination for him. He is surprised and suspicious to see the same driver pick him up each night but eventually accepts Solo's company.

Solo keeps up his patter with the taciturn older man, takes William to a bar, and even brings him back to his house after William passes out in the cab. At one point, Solo goes so far as to move into William's motel, insisting he needs a place to study for his flight-attendant exams, using it as opportunity to do William's laundry, and check out the pills that William carries.

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Solo's interest in the old man feels entirely plausible, and is implicitly tied to his family back in Senegal. At one point, Solo explains to William that, in his country, it's an honour to take care of the elderly, and they are welcomed in their children's homes. Then why not go back to his country, grumbles William. Solo says he will, when he's old and needs care.

What happens in Goodbye Solo meets the complex demands of good classic storytelling, of being both credible and unpredictable, though the most powerful emotions, particularly at the end, are communicated through a handful of emotionally connected images, without any words. There is no music throughout, except what plays on Solo's radio.

As well, a lot about the characters' inner motives remains unexplained, which feels respectful of the reality of our meetings with strangers. At heart, though, every moviegoer can recognize a love story, no matter how unusual the context.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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