Joe Wright is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors. I fell in love with his 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, and, although I have yet to see his Oscar-nominated 2007 film Atonement, I think he has another winner this spring with The Soloist. The story depicts real human misery and authentic compassion, packaged together in a refreshingly unique style of filmmaking.
The Soloist is based on a nonfiction book by Steve Lopez, columnist for the L.A. Times. In 2005, Lopez met a homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Nathaniel had a gentle disposition, a serious difficulty communicating comprehensibly, and a unique ability to make music on a violin with only two strings. Lopez’s book, also called The Soloist, tells the story of how he befriended Ayers, trying to extend a helping hand to him, and how it ultimately changed his own life.
Initially, Lopez’s interest in Nathaniel is purely selfish. He is desperate for material to use in his column, and the novelty of Nathaniel’s story appeals to him. Over time, Lopez’s desire to benefit from his new acquaintance develops into genuine curiosity and eventually into real friendship. The bond between these unlikely friends removes Lopez from his comfortable, sterile, and lonely suburban environment and introduces him to the best and the worst of authentic human experience in the urban quarters of LA.
Nathaniel’s story begins in his childhood when he discovered his natural talent for music. He became deeply attached to his favorite instrument, the cello, and it saw him through tumultuous times growing up black in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. He was admitted to Julliard, and showed extreme promise as a budding performer. In his second year there, all his dreams came to a tragic end when Nathaniel began showing signs of schizophrenia, which isolated him socially and prevented him from performing.
The most stylized technique used in this film is its subjective depictions of Nathaniel’s experience of schizophrenia. Conflicting voices can be heard whispering on the soundtrack, the images on the screen are vague and disorienting, and because of this the audience can taste a bit of the confusion of mental illness. When Nathaniel attends a Beethoven concert in LA, he closes his eyes and, for what feels like several minutes, the only images on the screen are swirling colors that embody the mood of the music. For a contemporary Hollywood movie, I found this is a surprising insertion reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey or experimental films from the likes of Stan Brakhage.
Human drama in The Soloist centers on Lopez’s life, in which Nathaniel is a catalyst for change. When Lopez discovers a genuine desire to help Nathaniel, it is clear that he suffers from a savior complex. His care for his friend is as much a need to be needed as it is a real benevolence. The most profound moment comes at the climax of the film after Nathaniel reacts violently to a favor Lopez offers him. Lopez here comes face to face with the reality that he cannot be Nathaniel’s savior. By accepting Nathaniel as he is, broken and vulnerable, Lopez finally achieves real selflessness.
Overall, I loved this film and would recommend it highly to any audience. It suffers in parts from sentimentality, but I did not find the film preachy. In fact, its most despicable character is a pompous, Bible-thumping cellist. The conclusion of the film is a bit contrived, in which Lopez reunites with his ex-wife and his narration belies an arguably unrealistic optimism about Nathaniel’s psychological condition. Still, any cheap or sentimental scenes were redeemed for me by the film’s honoring of true fraternal charity and its acceptance of human weakness.
The title of this film says it all. We first assume that Nathaniel, being the musician, is the soloist, but Lopez, steeped in the self-centeredness of his work and his culture, shows himself to be the real "soloist", practicing a lifestyle, so to speak, of "soloism." The aim of this film is to follow his process of growing into a more complete human being who by giving himself to another person is capable of real communion. Is this not the task for all of us in the modern world?