The main characters in Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani’s three features have been immigrants in the transportation business. Their lives are shaped by and contingent upon mobility and the movements of others. They’ve come from afar and joined the flow of American traffic pursuing a happiness often dreamt about but rarely attained. After Man Push Cart’s (2005) commuter-catering Pakistani food cart operator, and Chop Shop’s (2007) body shop-dwelling Latino child hustler, Goodbye Solo follows a Senegalese cab driver (and aspiring flight attendant) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (where Bahrani was born and raised). When Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané) drives William (Red West) to a suburban multiplex, the latter books a longer ride in ten days to a rocky promontory in a nearby mountain range. The older man’s suicidal intentions are clear, so charismatic charmer Solo sets about befriending William.
The ensuing dialectic, between the struggling immigrant’s chatterbox enthusiasm and the estranged grandfather’s persistent hostility, slowly reveals details of hard-fought lives and the backdrop of suburban poverty on the front lines of America’s new depression. Bahrani and cinematographer Michael Simmonds’ skill — moving from New York’s cacophony to eerie Winston-Salem while sustaining their intimate, organic relationships with actors and beautifully subdued visual style — betrays the incredible craft behind their understated neo-realism. As writer (sharing screenwriting duties with Bahareh Azimi), Bahrani dispenses with American indies’ familiar emotional cues. Characters can be cruel, apathetic or amoral (Solo chauffeurs a friend on what appear to be a series of drug deals), but the film’s tone never slips into moralizing condescension. Like these characters who prize mobility above all else, Bahrani’s films ask viewers to meet them halfway. And once again, the journey is completely rewarding.