The Little Movie That Could

A few months ago, Ramin Bahrani was the best director you'd never heard of. Then, writes Daily Beast columnist Aravind Adiga, he made Goodbye, Solo and the world caught on.

05.12.09 5:44 AM ET

In the opening scene of Goodbye, Solo—the new movie from Ramin Bahrani—an older white man named William gets into a cab in Winston-Salem and asks his taxi driver, an African immigrant named Solo, to drive him to a faraway spot. Solo soon realizes that William wants to be driven to that spot in order to kill himself there; he tries to talk William out of this plan. At this stage, the viewer thinks he knows where this film is headed; two men from different cultures will bond, and suicide will be replaced by a beautiful friendship. But that isn’t how Goodbye, Solo unfolds. What happens is a stunning reversal of the viewers’ expectations, and the ending is one of the most radical things you’ve seen in recent cinema. It is risk-taking of this kind that is making so many people hail Ramin Bahrani as the great new American director.

Taxi drivers, old men without families, street-side vendors, prostitutes, and petty thieves challenge, expand, and enrich America in his films.

Just a couple of months ago, Ramin Bahrani was probably the most famous young director you had never heard of. His films had shown at major festivals like Cannes and Venice, and critics across the world raved about them, but they had not yet broken through to a wider American audience. All that changed when the country’s most important film critic, Roger Ebert, after seeing Goodbye, Solo, called Bahrani “the great new American director.” Ebert wrote: “After three films, each a master work, [Bahrani] has established himself as a gifted, confident filmmaker with ideas that involve who and where we are at this time.” In a long article in The New York Times magazine, another major critic, A.O. Scott placed Bahrani at the vanguard of the hottest trend in American cinema—what he called Neo–Neo realism. Bahrani has since been on Charlie Rose, and praised by just about every major paper in the country. There is little doubt that he is the biggest new name in cinema.

GOODBYE SOLO, from left: Red West, Souleymane Sy Savane, 2008. ©Roadside Attractions/courtesy Everett Collection

Roadside Attractions

Moviegoers haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years. Hollywood’s blockbusters increasingly seem to feature comic-book heroes rather than real human beings. At the same time, independent American cinema has shriveled up, and produces unambitious little movies about the miseries of life in the suburbs. Maybe that’s why Bahrani has hit critics and viewers so hard. Born to Iranian immigrants, and fluent in Farsi, the 34-year old from Winston-Salem is at the head of a new generation of directors telling new kinds of stories about Americans. His first film, Man Push Cart, features a Pakistani immigrant to New York who makes a living by dragging a donut-and-coffee cart around the city; his second film, Chop Shop, revolved around a pair of Hispanic teenagers hustling to make a living in a desperately poor part of Queens. These are full-blooded films about the American underclass that feature prostitution, suicide, and theft—anyone who goes to Chop Shop expecting a wan indie flick about middle-class angst will be knocked out of their seat. And yet the style of these films is restrained; Bahrani withholds more than he shows. Influenced by the great Italian neo-realist directors—Rosselini, Pasolini, and De Sica, in particular—Bahrani’s filmmaking avoids all the frills and tricks—fast-cutting, pulsing music, distorted timelines—that so many younger directors resort to; he prefers what is simple, direct, and classical in storytelling, and films benefit profoundly for it.

Alive to the promise and failure of multicultural America, Bahrani’s three major films probe forgotten places within society for the stories hidden away there. Yet they are not polemical; there is no “message.” They are primal narratives of courage, anger, despair unearthed from the lives of people whom we barely even notice around us. His protagonists have their backs to the wall, and he portrays them with great humanity, but without any sentimentality. The push-cart vendor and the teenaged hustler may suffer, but they are not victims; they make the choices that shape their destiny. Bahrani is an actor’s director, an expert at cajoling, tricking, charming his actors into giving superlative performances. (I think Red West’s turn in Goodbye, Solo as the curmudgeonly William, beaten by life and yet somehow defiant, is extraordinary.) Though laconic, his scripts are writerly, and are meticulously structured and plotted; in fact, he spends months writing and rewriting them. The hottest young director in town, in other words, is making solid old-fashioned cinema. An America under President Obama, alert to social engagement and responsibility, is exactly the right place for such a “neo-neo realist” director to make a mark for himself. Yet the odd thing is that Bahrani was already planning his films 15 years ago, a time when social engagement was not fashionable in cinema or popular culture.

GOODBYE SOLO, from left: Diana Franco Galindo, Souleymane Sy Savane, 2008. ©Roadside Attractions/courtesy Everett Collection

Roadside Attractions

I’ve known Bahrani since the mid-1990s, when we were undergraduates at Columbia University in New York. Tall and thin, owl-like in his gaze, deeply knowledgeable about Dostoyevsky and Kokoschka, and full of tremendous plans to write and direct movies, he was so far ahead of everyone else at college that he seemed to us a creature beamed in from Mars to accelerate human civilization. Then we discovered that he had come from some place even stranger than that: North Carolina. The idea that the South had become cool and multicultural wasn’t really bought by anyone in New York back then, and his classmates settled scores with Bahrani by teasing him for his Southern twang. He has lost it now—but he remains, in many ways, a creature of the American South: in his easy-going manner, his ironic humor, but above all, in his ingrained resistance to the idea that America is defined by what its powerful or successful citizens do. America is central to Bahrani’s vision of his work, but this country, for him, lives (as it did for Faulkner, one of his literary heroes) at its margins; taxi drivers, old men without families, street-side vendors, prostitutes, and petty thieves challenge, expand, and enrich America in his films. The idea of an America defined at its fringe is again at the heart of the new script he is working on—called Ship of Fools—which promises to give birth to his best film yet.

Perhaps Ebert is right, and Bahrani is the great new American director; but he is also a great old-fashioned American director. He believes passionately in the continuing relevance of what seems to many an outdated medium. Complex stories for adults come mostly from television these days—and serious cinema must also compete with computer games and Internet applications like YouTube. A few months ago, when I went to see him in his apartment in Brooklyn, Bahrani was in front of his TV, watching Federico’s Fellini’s I Vitelloni. He told me to sit down and watch it with him; we were coming to his favorite part of the film. Just as the movie is about to end, a young man is on a night train, leaving his hometown forever; as the train starts moving, we cut into the bedrooms of his sleeping friends—and the camera-work creates the illusion that their beds are moving along with the train. It is as if the young man’s heartbreak at leaving home somehow warps reality and pulls his friends along with him: The effect is magical. Bahrani paused the movie, and said, with a smile: “Only the cinema can do this.” The movies he is making remind us of the same thing.

Aravind Adiga is the bestselling author of The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.