Friday, May 8, 2009

A "Solo" flight worth taking

I know. You -- along with everyone else in the western hemisphere-- want to run off to see "Star Trek" this weekend. I'm not saying you shouldn't. I enjoyed "Star Trek" myself. (See review below.) But that super-buzzed helping of sci-fi isn't the only movie in town, and there's at least one smaller movie -- "Goodbye Solo" at the Chez Artiste -- that deserves particular attention.

Directed by Ramin Bahrani ("Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop"), "Goodbye Solo" is an American gem, a movie that captures the texture of life far from the theatrical drumbeats that threaten to deafen us at the multiplex. Those familiar with Bahrani, who lives in New York but grew up in North Carolina, are well aware that he understands the immigrant and outsider experience. Just as important, though, he has a strong appreciation for the way life is changing around us, for an America that's being irreparably altered by more new faces than most of us can absorb. To reach the center of our current experience, Bahrani wisely moves toward its edges.

In his latest effort, Bahrani tells the story of an uneasy relationship between a Winston-Salem cab driver (Souléymane Sy Savané) and an embittered older southern man. The old white guy -- who reminded me a bit of Nick Nolte -- is portrayed by 72-year-old Red West, a guy who attained minor-legend status by working as a body guard for Elvis Presley.

Deeply influenced by its surroundings, "Goodbye Solo" has the ostensible look of an odd-couple pairing. But the African- immigrant and redneck story lines don't follow predictable arcs, and Bahrani has no interest in supplying viewers with a sentimental catharsis.

Bahrani isn't the kind of filmmaker who answers every question -- nor does he have to. His characters have depth, and they pull you into the spheres of anger and loneliness (the dog-faced West) and ebullience and hope (the engaging Sayane). Both characters have their needs, and both, finally, have their sadness. Bahrani's willing to leave it at that.

"Goodbye Solo" is only Bahrani's third movie, but he's already established himself as an important new voice in American movies. I wasn't able to see "Goodbye Solo" until the day before its Denver opening -- Friday -- so I may have to return to it later, but I wanted to say something about its opening.

So consider this an alert: Don't let "Star Trek" take all your moviegoing energy; save a little for a director who's carving a path that increasingly sets him apart from the rest of the pack. While movies assault the multiplex at warp speed, films such as "Goodbye Solo" are helping to keep American cinema alive. Look carefully, and you may even see some people who seem real.

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