Goodbye Solo opens Friday in select theaters

It’s not merely North Carolina chauvinism to declare that Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo is not only one of the best films of the year, but also a heartening step toward a fresher approach to cinematic realism establishing a beachhead in America. Bahrani, an Iranian-American who grew up in Winston-Salem and now lives in New York, has established himself with his third feature as an important new voice in American film. His achievement comes on the heels of a steady stream of strong independent feature filmmaking in this state, from Junebug to All the Real Girls to Loggerheads to Great World of Sound. (We will have to reserve judgment on Main Street, which recently wrapped in Durham.)

Goodbye Solo is simply a love story between two outcasts in Winston-Salem. One is a cab driver called Solo, a Senegalese immigrant becoming estranged from his Latina wife (but not, crucially, from his stepdaughter) who dreams of becoming a flight attendant. The other is an aging, obstreperous, ravaged-looking ex-biker named William. The story’s stakes are established in the film’s first scene: William offers Solo $1,000 to deliver him, a couple weeks hence, to Blowing Rock, N.C., at the height of the autumn leaf season.

Solo quickly surmises, to his dismay, that it is to be a one-way trip, for the man seems to intend to jump to his death from the overlook, which is famed for the swirling winds that purportedly blow snow up to the sky. Solo could choose to reject William’s offer, or to accept it without reservation. Instead, he agrees to the gig, but embarks on a mission to understand and perhaps save him. William and Solo are an odd couplethe rough-mannered white Southern man and the handsome African whose cheerful, lilting Senegalese accent can’t quite disguise his inner turmoil. Gratifyingly, Bahrani avoids the clichéd racial confrontations that non-Dixie filmmakers would employ; in fact, it’s hard to think of another Southern film that is so matter-of-factly multicultural.

Indeed, what follows is a surprising, oblique film that avoids easy melodrama. Like the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, whose A Taste of Cherry is an obvious inspiration for this new film, Bahrani is interested in how bereft, isolated people can confront their loneliness and mortality.

In this film, Solo asserts his kindly attentions over a man who has ceased caring for himself. The aspiring flight attendant, in other words, offers comfort and assurance to a querulous passenger on a scary flight. Their relationship is faintly comic as the cranky William resists Solo’s efforts to make him comfortable at every turn. We learn that William is carrying an enormous burden of grief, involving an ex-wife and perhaps a grandchild, but we never fully figure it outnor does Solo. Bahrani is wise enough to allow some mysteries to be unsolved. Instead, we learn more about Solo as we follow the ups and downs of his life: He’s more attentive to William than he is to his own family, and he’s preoccupied with his own dreams.

The title phrase “Goodbye Solo” becomes an especially resonant one. It’s a line not uttered in the film, yet in a crucial scene, viewers may find themselves whispering it.

Bahrani has been quietly building a reputation with tough, not-exactly-loveable tales of underclass life in New York, complete with amateur actors and unvarnished, documentary-style productions. I wrote about Bahrani three years ago when he took his feature debut, Man Push Cart, to Sundance and was impressed by his poise, energy and sense of mission. He followed that film with Chop Shop, released here last year, which dramatized young lives in the warren of junk dealers in Willet’s Point, Queens.

What makes Goodbye Solo differentand such a marked breakthrough, it seems to meis Bahrani’s assurance with his actors. It’s probably not a coincidence that this time his two leads are played by professional performers, rather than being amateurs plucked off the street in the fashion of such realist icons as Vittorio De Sica and Kiarostami, to cite two of Bahrani’s acknowledged influences.

But it’s also to Bahrani’s credit that Red West (William) and Souleymane Sy Savane (Solo) deliver fearless, sensitive performances in the biggest roles of their careers. West entered showbiz as a member of Elvis Presley’s entourage before moving into movie stunt work and character roles, while Savane has worked as a model and flight attendant. Bahrani, by his own account, purposefully doesn’t have an easy bedside manner with actors, but he nonetheless coaxed extraordinary performances out of his leads. In Goodbye Solo, Bahrani’s actors play strongly to the camera. We can feel the emotional turmoil because we can see it. The result is his warmest, most poetic and inviting film.