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Goodbye Solo (2009)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

A momentary acquaintance is most times just that: momentary. The beauty in Goodbye Solo arises from a quick, sharp moment of insight leads one character, driven by his depth of concern for other people, to relentlessly

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

I was intensely struck by Solo’s character in Goodbye Solo and specifically by his immediate — and sustained — reaction to a fellow human in crisis. I want to be that ready to reach and stretch to care for another life. The moment (two minutes into the film) that Solo realizes that William has specific plans to kill himself, he is snapped into a heart-level connection with William. Solo seems to immediately feel the pain that William must feel, even though Solo knows nothing about his pain. For the rest of the film, Solo tries to draw William back into life. I want such depth of love and commitment to those I chance upon in life.

The film’s energy starts quite early on, with the sudden change in Solo’s countenance when he realizes the implications of what William has said. Solo is the type of guy who wants to have fun and share life with anyone he meets. So, when he senses something odd in William’s request for a one-way ride, he pursues the conversation. Others might simply take the money and run, or they might be put off by William’s sharp responses, but Solo cares about people and wants to know them. As he chatters on, Solo’s thoughts lead him to the reason behind the request, which William tacitly confirms by turning to look at Solo. Solo’s smiling chatter suddenly turns to concern. Immediately he tries to encourage William to see that “tomorrow’s gonna be a better day.”

How Solo does — and doesn’t — try to draw William to life

From his initial encouragement (“You’re not gonna do that, man”) to his bringing Alex along on the ride to Blowing Rock, Solo reaches toward William in at least twenty different times and ways. Solo pushes and prods. He takes indirect and direct angles. He struggles to earn a place in William’s life. In all his efforts, Solo clearly gets in William’s space, yet there are significant lines he doesn't cross — at least not until some distance into his relationship with William. Among his efforts, he:

  • Tells William, "I'm your driver," and tells him to call Solo directly.
  • On the next ride, tries to give William back the $100, suggesting that William didn't really mean it.
  • Says directly that he wants to know why William wants to "go to that mountain."
  • Tries to spark in William a remembrance of life with women, joking about women with "big booties" and even saying he can hook William up with "this black woman shaped like a bottle of soda" — William actually softens here, at least he doesn't object to Solo's banter.
  • Asks William directly if he has family he can move in with, then when Williams objects with, "Who says I want to see my people?" Solo suggests a broad family theme: "Sure you do, they're your blood; they want to see you."
  • Tries to get the barmaid to get any kind of information from William.
  • Takes him to sleep at his own house rather than a hotel.
  • Takes William to motel where Solo has a friend that can keep an eye on him.
  • Tries to involve William in repairing the broken taxi, leading to getting a smile from William about his motorcycle riding.
  • Says, sitting on the couch in the motel room, how much he misses Quiera and Alex, looking over at William as if to see if he's getting through at all.
  • Gets William involved in helping him study for the flight attendant test.
  • Gets William interested in how cool it is to send pictures through a cell phone.
  • Sets a picture of Alex on the night stand in the motel room.
  • Pulls William into celebrating after his flight attendant test, saying he aced it when likely he knew he didn't.
  • Gets William talking about the music William likes, then says he should check out Hank Williams since William likes him.
  • Intentionally misses the turn to the hotel so as to party on longer, playing pool in the bar — he gets William involved enough to comment on one of the women.

Along the way, we see how strongly Solo's heart longs for William's life:

  • Solo's fall in countenance when he first understands William's intent.
  • Solo uses Alex's atlas to trace the route from Winston-Salem to Blowing Rock.
  • Solo is taken aback when William moves into the motel with only one small suitcase.
  • Solo becomes downcast when William says Solo can keep the motel room when he leaves.
  • Solo again becomes downcast again when William goes to the bank to close his account.

William closing his account with three days left jars Solo into stronger measures, and he begins stepping over the line into William's space. He goes through William's stuff. He has a pharmacist tell him what William's pills are. He finds the picture of the boy.

Finally, Solo seems to realize he must risk talking directly to William. He knows how quickly William can shut down, but all his indirect efforts have failed, so he asks William directly what's wrong. William continues to shut him out, so Solo presses on, telling William of the photo and asking who the boy is. Solo appeals, saying he wants to help, that he wants him to stay, that Alex and the boy would want him to stay, yet William only closes tighter, demanding that Solo get out and saying Solo is no longer his driver.

Solo was right to have reserved a direct approach to the end, yet even that wouldn't get through. But Solo has a sort of atomic bomb he could throw: He could tell the boy. He considers it. He almost does it. In the end, whether out of respect for William or emotional protection for the boy, he turns away. It was a line not to be crossed; too big a violation and too big of an intrusion where Solo doesn't know the history and doesn't have standing in William's life or the boy's life. Solo's restraint is of love, not fear. He has knocked — rather vigorously — on William's door (and done so literally in the film), but William has not invited Solo in, and love will wait at the door, not bust it in.

Even though William has kicked Solo out, Solo will not abandon him. He does two more things as last ditch efforts to get William to stay. First, he endures more facial damage to get William's final trip from the other taxi driver. Then, he brings Alex along for the ride to Blowing Rock.

Does it matter why William wants to die?

Goodbye Solo never makes William's reasons clear. It is clear that there is some pain about and estrangement from (what we presume is) his grandson, but we're not given the history. As to whether it matters, the film's answer is clear enough. When Solo is in the motel room studying for his test, we are shown the text in the manual that says flight attendants are there to support life, not diagnose illnesses. Solo reads this and looks at William.

We do often say, in effect if not actually, that someone doesn't deserve help if they got themselves into a mess. Indeed consequences are a good teacher, and so sometimes it is best to not rescue someone from a troubled scenario but rather to love them through it. That's one type of situation, where it is good to know the reasons for a person's troubles. But this is first aid: William is bleeding, burnt by life, suffering an attack of the heart and spirit. Solo is a bystander, trying to help from the outside. He knows that he has no standing in William's world from which to ask personal questions, so to William's bleeding Solo applies the pressure of his love, but from the position of outsider trying to win a place in another's life.

Finally Solo can't take it and does cross the line, asking William personal questions, trying to understand why, and this is when William throws Solo out of his life. As limiting and frustrating as it may be, love respects boundaries, knocking on the door yet waiting for an invitation inside.

Making contact

Just before the final ride, when Solo finds and reads from William's notebook, he sees that he really has gotten through to William. William has cared about Solo's flight attendant test. He cares about Alex and wonders who she will be and whether Solo notices enough of what she does. Solo reads these words and is once more struck. He did get through; his love and care did touch William. But in the end it didn't change things. William had made his choice, and not rashly — he was methodical and fully aware of the life around him.

Were Solo's effort, then, for naught? Did he waste his time? Yes, it is sad that William left, yet our souls are enlarged by sacrificial love. To adapt a line from a Wilcox/Chapman song, Solo "will always have what [he] gave to love." He will carry the sadness with him, but instead of only a hole left wondering what he could have done (or worse, a bitter well of knowing he didn't care or try), that hole will be at least partly filled by his doing what he knew to do, and the stretching of his heart will leave him with a greater capacity for future love. Love is never wasted.

The parallel in Solo's life

At the same time Solo is trying to draw William back to life, he is struggling to find a life together with Quiera that respects who they both are. She comes down hard on his idea to become a flight attendant. She has a point that Solo wouldn't be around as much to help with the coming baby, but she goes so far as to call it a "childish dream," to accuse him of lying when he says he didn't study for the test, and to say, "It doesn't matter what you want to do." She heavily encroaches across Solo's boundaries, trouncing on his heart and desires. Such can severely damage, even kill, another's spirit and soul. After their confrontation, he is sleeping on the couch. Solo said he didn't want her cousins coming over to fix the broken taxi, but she called them anyway. He is driven to move out, telling her, "It's just not working." He tries to explain, but she won't listen and hangs up on him.

Quiera won't give Solo's plan a try — neither does William. Solo is leaving his life with Quiera and Alex and the baby — William is leaving life altogether. Solo is driven away because Quiera runs roughshod over his heart — we don't know what drives William away, but since the boy doesn't know who he is, it seems that there was some estrangement years ago; we see in William's little book that he is returning to Winston-Salem after some years away (in his comments about how it has changed). Quiera wants Solo to come back, saying, "You know we love you." — In his big confrontation with William, Solo says that he and Alex and the boy want him to stay.

In the hospital, the Quiera-Solo heart-to-heart centers on trust. She wants him to trust that her way is best for him. He wants her to trust that his depth of care — "I'd do anything for the family" — is the foundation for her to give his way a chance. At least this time Quiera does not argue back at him or again call his way childish. He tells her he'll come back, even though he has no assurance from her that she'll come around — Even at the end, when Alex asks if he'll try the test again, Solo says only, "I think so."

An open door

In Solo's decision to come back, he embraces uncertainty of life and the possibility that Quiera may not come around. It's not that he simply dies to his heart, saying he'll do whatever Quiera wants. He has pressed the issue, and she seems now more willing to listen. There's an open door, and perhaps they have a stronger foundation for connection. He may yet be rebuffed again by Quiera, yet he places his way at risk for the greater beauty of people and family and relationships.

All along, Solo's call to William has been like that: A call toward the Beautiful embodied in music and love and joking around and people and games and family and celebrations. And he's gotten through to William. We see William's longing for life in his helping Solo study, his noticing Alex, and in his seeing the mother in the boy. Yet William still hangs on to his past pain, unable or unwilling to risk that, should he try to stay, he may be again rebuffed by life.

It hurts to watch William's choice, as it hurts Solo to watch. Solo could have, through a major violation against William, taken that last ditch effort by telling the boy and bringing him to William. One might argue that true love would consider the violation justified for the greater good of saving a physical life. Yet a greater love perhaps considers a bigger picture, including risks to spiritual life and a humble assessment of one's own limitations. Not knowing the history, Solo could not know what Pandora's Box he would open with the boy nor what spiritual death it might bring on.

In any case, Goodbye Solo embodies a love that calls and waits and, for better or for worse, will not violate another's boundaries. As with the flight attendant question that ends the film, Solo forms a barrier in William's life, trying to divert him toward the emergency exit, but Solo's respectful love goes only so far as to open the exit door "forcefully enough that it locks against the side of the fuselage," hoping that William might step through.

  • Opening the film in the middle of a conversation in a taxi, just before the remarks that launch the story and energy of the film — it mirrors the sudden change in Solo's view of William from customer-for-friendly-chat to human-in-need-of-life-and-beauty.
  • When, in the taxi, William is helping Solo study, Solo's answer to the "emergency evacuation" question is cut off before the bit about opening the exit — it sets us up to pay closer attention when the question returns at the end of the film.
  • When Solo goes to the motel with a mind to move in with William, he raises his hand to the door, then pauses briefly before knocking — it concisely yet clearly shows the deliberateness of Solo's plan as he takes that last, quick opportunity to rethink before proceeding.
  • After William kicks Solo out, Solo is walking on the street. Behind him, we see a sign for Carolina Christian Supply and then he walks by a "help wanted" sign — it seems the film is longing for people to get up and supply the need for true Christian love in the world, as Solo is doing.
  • At the theater, Bahrani places a film review quote in the window, under which William stands for a few seconds. The quote in from Roger Ebert's review of Flannel Pajamas: "One of the wisest films I can remember about love and human intimacy. I will not forget it." — it seems to mirror Bahrani's aspirations for Goodbye Solo.
  • After Solo has left Quiera, and without comment by the film, Solo leaves money on the table at Quiera's place. It shows that he is still caring for Quiera and Alex, even as he struggles with his and Quiera's differing plans for their lives. He has left but not abandoned them.
  • "Quiera" is Spanish for "want" — referencing the central issue in Solo's relationship with her: How will they deal with differing desires for their life together?
  • Throughout the film, Bahrani periodically gives us moments of meditation on the power of place: Alex is studying local history, we see places like Tarheel Textile and RJR Tobacco company, we see iconic place images like a water tower and a smoke stack — it silently brings in a power of place, as if, like William, we were returning there after a long time away.
  • In a sense, the cab dispatcher plays a God role in the film, being the one in control of whether Solo will get William's rides. She is one to whom Solo "prays" for William's rides and to allow bending of the rules. Throughout the whole film, like God, we never see her.
  • Even William's final preparations are detailed and methodical. When he awakens Solo, sleeping in the taxi, his hair is well-groomed. He made the bed. All throughout, in selling his apartment, establishing his will (as a slow look at his notebook at the end reveals), closing his account, and the like, William has been sure of his desire and steadfast in his plan. His suicide is not a momentary whim.
  • Just before William says goodbye to Alex, she asks him, "Are you sure?" about the ice cream, but it serves as a question about William's decision to leave. He turns from looking up the path to looking at Alex and says simply and surely, "Yes." — it is one last embodiment of William's knowing and coherent decision to end his life.
  • The final William-Solo "face off" ended with no words — it would have been very easy to have tossed in a kitschy bit of William speaking the film's title (just before that, William does say goodbye to Alex). Instead, Bahrani gives us 25 seconds of Solo and William looking each other in the eye, silently running over all that has transpired between them.
  • After William walks off camera into the woods, up the path to the Rock, Bahrani gives us another lingering 18 seconds of wind, fog, trees — a haunting few moments of wondering did William carry through with it — before cutting to Solo and Alex, delaying on the observation platform before they go to the Rock.
  • Aside from being a suicide site, Blowing Rock has a curious bit of hope: If you throw something off, it can get blown right back to you by the upward vertical wind from the valley below. There is actually a Native legend that a lover once tried to commit suicide there and was indeed blown back up to the arms of his sweetheart.
  • The first stick that Alex and Solo throw off Blowing Rock doesn't come back — poignantly embodying the broken hope. So they try again, at greater risk, up closer to the edge. Bahrani hangs on Solo holding the stick, looking intently at it, the stick in his hand against the valley far below, thus cementing a visceral, symbolic association between William and the stick. It does get blown upward this time (very quickly, hard to see), though Solo's eyes don't follow it as he stares to the sadness in the valley.
  • In the final shot, after the taxi disappears around the bend, Bahrani gives us 23 seconds holding on the scene: the wind continues, a bird chirps, the mist rises, the pink sky hails the rising sun. The wind strengthens just before cut-to-black, continues on for five more seconds, the blends into the haunting closing music as the credits start — it gives us space to contemplate, to look for hope in the glory of what Solo has done.

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 2009 by the filmmakers.

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