In this benign version of "Collateral," the only person a cabbie's passenger wants to kill is himself.

In this benign version of “Collateral,” the only person a cabbie’s passenger wants to kill is himself. Ramin Bahrani’s brilliant follow-up to “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop” concerns a Senegalese taxi driver in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a taciturn old loner who hires the cabbie to drive him to his jumping-off point. Utterly engrossing dual-character study, unfolding with a serene disregard for indie quirkiness, “Goodbye Solo” radiates authenticity, as much in the town’s unmistakable tobacco towers as in the characters’ mindsets. Focused gem could ride strong critical support into arthouse release.

Subject inevitably echoes Abbas Kiarostami’s “A Taste of Cherry.” Myriad potential drivers uncomfortable with the idea of suicide are conflated in the figure of life-affirming cabbie Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane). Not accepting the death wish of his self-styled friend William (Red West), Solo assumes responsibility for the latter’s fate, determined to turn his destiny around, despite the old man’s angry resistance.

Soon Solo is taking William out for drinks and back to his house to sleep them off, much to the dismay of Solo’s pregnant wife (Carmen Leyva) and the delight of his preteen stepdaughter (Diana Franco Galindo), who often joins them on their jaunts. Solo even finagles his way into sharing William’s motel room, doing the man’s laundry unasked, testing his pills behind his back and goading the old man into revealing details of his past. Though Solo’s intentions are clearly altruistic, and his love of people infectious, it would not be difficult to imagine his meddlesome actions in a horror-film context.

The 34-year-old Solo has issues of his own. He’s desperate to become a flight attendant, while his skeptical wife vehemently opposes this career move — as does the drug dealer he sometimes chauffeurs, who hopes to make their relationship permanent.

Pic suffers none of the occasional awkwardness that plagued the narrative transitions in “Man Push Cart”; nor does it possess the fundamentally inaccessible otherness of milieu that detoured “Chop Shop.” Instead, Bahrani has charted out a singular environment in the film’s surprisingly funky Winston-Salem locale. The town, once seen as entirely insular, now claims a heterogeneous population that feels more comfortable among its dwindling tobacco fields than do curmudgeonly old-timers like William. If Solo reintroduces William to the seamier side of the city, William will inevitably lead Solo to his chosen termination point, Blowing Rock National Park, where it snows upside down and a branch thrown from the summit will return with the wind.

Pitch-perfect, charismatic thesping draws the viewer along unhesitatingly, with Michael Simmonds’ raw, immediate lensing minimizing distinctions between inside and out.

Goodbye Solo

Production

A Gigantic Pictures, Noruz Films production, in association with Lucky Hat Entertainment, Independent Television Service (ITVS). (International sales: Memento Films, Paris.) Produced by Jason Orans, Ramin Bahrani. Executive producers, Brian Devine, Brooke Devine, Sally Jo Fifer. Co-executive producer, Stephen Bannatyne. Directed by Ramin Bahrani. Screenplay, Bahrani, Bahareh Azimi.

Crew

Camera (color), Michael Simmonds; production designer, Chad Keith; sound (Dolby Digital), Tom Efinger. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Aug. 30, 2008. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With

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

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