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Toronto: "Goodbye Solo" is good stuff

September 7, 2008 | 12:04 pm

My first real discovery of the Toronto festival happened Saturday afternoon, although I cannot say it was entirely unexpected. "Goodbye Solo" is the new film from Ramin Bahrani, who was here last year with his second feature, "Chop Shop." His latest is a powerful step forward, taking the more amorphous and ambiguous aspects of his earlier films and giving the storytelling a more fully realized shape without robbing the film of a sense of mystery. That's perhaps a circular way of saying that the film has a more straightforward plot and narrative drive, while retaining a certain emotional open-endedness, a subtle way Bahrani has of not pushing a point too hard.

Set in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Bahrani is from, the story follows a Senegalese cab driver as he injects himself into the life of an old man he has picked up as a fare. Taking off from this simple idea, the film touches on all sorts of deeper themes, including the nature of friendship and the changing face of the American South.

The film marks the first leading role in the long career of Red West. A veteran character actor, West is perhaps still best known as one of the key members of Elvis Presley's "Memphis Mafia," the tight-knit entourage of friends and bodyguards who surrounded the King during his reign. West's performance, centered mostly around looks and body language rather than dialogue, plumbs real emotional depths. His final moments onscreen are riveting and heartbreaking.

Not long before the Saturday screening of "Goodbye Solo," word filtered in that it had won a FIPRESCI critics' prize at the Venice Film Festival, where it had its world premiere. Part of what's exciting about coming to a festival like Toronto year in, year out, is being able to watch and in some small sense share in the growth of filmmakers like Bahrani. To see promise fulfilled, talent stretched and amplified, is inspiring.

-- Mark Olsen