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Goodbye Solo (unrated) ***½

Red West, left, is the mysterious stranger, Souleymane Sy Savane the Senegal-born cab driver who befriends him.
Red West, left, is the mysterious stranger, Souleymane Sy Savane the Senegal-born cab driver who befriends him.

By Robert W. Butler, McClatchy News Service

Writer/director Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart) is an observer, not a manipulator. That’s why his Goodbye Solo is a memorable study in humanity rather than the sentimental bath it might have been.

Solo (an excellent Souleymane Sy Savane) is a Senegal-born cabbie in Winston-Salem, N.C., and bubbles over with an immigrant’s optimism. This garrulous fellow jokes around, calls his passengers ”Big Dog,” flashes a blinding smile and dreams of becoming a flight attendant.

The old man he picks up is his polar opposite. William (veteran actor and one-time Elvis bodyguard Red West) is a coot who says little. When he does it’s usually an insult.

As the film begins William already has given Solo $100 of the $1,000 he has promised for a one-way cab ride the following week to Blowing Rock Mountain, about two hours away. Apparently the place is a magnet for suicidal jumpers.

Are you planning on killing yourself, Solo jokes.

William doesn’t answer.

Over the next week Solo befriends this mystery man, allowing William to spend a night in the house he shares with his wife (Carmen Leyva) and his precocious stepdaughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo).

The grumpy William softens a bit when Alex is around and even helps prep Solo for a job interview with an airline. But he steadfastly refuses to discuss their impending trip to the mountains. When Solo pries, William threatens to take his business elsewhere. He has the cabbie drive him to a bank so he can close his account. He spends a lot of time at a movie theater.

And as the date approaches he slips into stony silence.

Goodbye Solo puts us in Solo’s shoes. We go from finding William’s surliness amusing to concern, confrontation, argument and, finally, acquiescence. Like Solo, we’re not exactly sure where we stand at the end. This movie raises questions it has no intention of answering. But the embittered William and the normally sunny Solo provide a quietly compelling look at the extremes of the human condition.

Cast: Souleymane Sy Savane, Red West, Diana Franco Galindo, Carmen Leyva.

Director: Ramin Bahrani.

Screenwriters: Bahareh Azima, Ramin Bahrani.

Producers: Ramin Bahrani, Jason Orans.

A Roadside Attractions release. Running time 91 minutes. Language. Playing in Miami-Dade only: Cosford.