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California Solo: A Melancholy Character Study with a Stunning Lead Performance
on January 15, 2013
In the press notes for California Solo, writer-director Marshall Lewy defines "FEAR" as an acronym that can mean either: "f*** everything and run" or "face everything and recover." Perhaps, more than anything, that is the underlying theme of his new movie California Solo. Starring Robert Carlyle in a mesmerizing performance, California Solo traces the first steps of one faded former Britpop rocker from once sense of fear to the other.
When we meet the movie's central character Lachlan MacAldonich, whom Carlyle infuses with equal portions of self-loathing and charm, he is living a comfortably numb existence. Carlyle is perfectly cast as Lachlan, the Scottish former lead guitarist in a "big deal" `90s British rock band, the Cranks. The band's real "big deal" was Lachlan's older brother, the Cranks lead singer Jed, who died tragically of a drug overdose years earlier in L.A.
By night, Lachlan hosts a rather morbid podcast called Flameouts, honoring the world's great musicians, tragically dead before their time: from T-Rex's Marc Bolan, to that most tragic of composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But, the one flameout Lachlan's not yet profiled is Jed; the memory of his brother's death is still too keen and raw, even more than a decade later, as Lachlan feels responsible (with good reason) for the overdose that killed him.
Since Jed's death, Lachlan hasn't been home to the U.K.--never faced family, friends, and fans. Nor really himself. Now an expat with a green card, in this self-imposed exile, hiding from his past and himself in Antelope Valley, California, Lachlan works on an organic farm owned by Warren (A Martinez in a gentle, sympathetic performance as Lachlan's patient boss).
That "comfortably numb" existence, and a steady diet of beer and Scotch, seems to be the only way Lachlan can live with himself, getting drunk nightly alone in his tiny hovel of a home or at the local bar. On one such night, Lachlan is pulled over and charged with a DUI; his problems are only just beginning.
A barely-remembered marijuana possession charge from years earlier threatens him with deportation unless he can prove himself valuable to someone--anyone--who is a U.S. citizen. As Lachlan confesses, "I can't think of anyone who would give a toss whether I'm here or not.", Lachlan reluctantly turns to his estranged ex-wife Catherine (Kathleen Wilhoite) and daughter Arianwen (Savannah Lathem)--whom he hasn't seen since she was three years old--as his last desperate hope against facing the music back home. It's a tricky path for him to take, full of emotional landmines, and, ultimately, there are no easy answers for him.
There is also an ongoing flirtation between Lachlan and Beau, a farmer's market customer. It would have been easy to take the relationship to its logical end and land them in bed. But it really rings true that it doesn't wind up that way. Lachlan is clearly so screwed up at this point and so self-destructive at this point, it's hard to imagine him pursuing it, even though he might desire it. It's an interesting narrative choice, but it makes a lot of sense, even though it might contradict conventional wisdom (and frustrate those of us more romantic souls).
And in the end, as well, the film's resolution doesn't necessarily go where the audience might expect either. There are no neat bows to tie up the shattered remains of Lachlan's life, yet it's not completely bleak. There are no pat answers; it's a hopeful, yet truthful. Lewy leaves filmgoers with a sense that he's evolving and that he is going to go face his past.
California Solo, more than anything, is a carefully drawn character study of a middle-aged man stuck in a 15-year old nightmare much of his own making. To say that Robert Carlyle's performance is stunning is not hyperbole; it's simple fact. He's in nearly every frame of the 97-minute film; we can't avoid getting pulled into the chaos of his life. One moment, we feel terrible for him; at another, we want to shake him and tell him to grow up, for heaven's sake!
We want him to find some peace, even as he refuses it in a self-destructive downward spiral intensified by his current problems with immigration. And whether he is wallowing in a drunken stupor of self-pity, raging about his immigration situation, shyly and ineffectively courting a beautiful young woman, or trying to reconnect with a daughter he barely knows, it's all there played out behind Carlyle's soulful eyes. He hits every emotional beat true and natural in a brilliant performance.
The actor always manages to find the humanity and vulnerability in every character he plays, but California Solo gives Carlyle the opportunity to exhibit the full range of his mastery. He doesn't miss a beat; none of it feels forced. It is gorgeous, naturalistic acting at its finest.
Ultimately, California Solo should be appreciated for the beautiful character study it is at its core, and the exquisite, heartbreaking performance of its lead actor. Not a huge, raucous rock movie, but rather a melancholy and not-too-sweet ballad of a film.