Home Video Hovel- California Solo, by Aaron Pinkston
With immigration becoming one of the hottest political subjects over the past few years, films have begun to spring up, typically looking at the argument from the side of the immigrant. The immigration dramas I’ve seen tend to be extremely emotional, with the aims of persuading everyone watching that the subjects deserve a chance to live the American dream. This approach is often pretty cloying and often doesn’t reach its goal — even the wonderful 2011 film A Better Life can’t quite pull it off, despite its emotionally devastating nature. Marshall Lewy’s California Solo may be on the same subject, but it doesn’t seem to have the same aims, which ultimately works to its benefit. It is a small, tempered film, trading in the political debate for a more personal story. Still, it doesn’t shy away from the process or the hardship that immigrants face to try to stay in America. It’s not exactly a legal drama, but the film clearly works through the steps of the process — I don’t have the experience to know if the events have legal accuracy, but the film plays it realistically and thoroughly.
Robert Carlyle stars as Lachlan MacAldonich, a Scottish immigrant who originally came to the United States as a guitarist in a marginally important rock band. When the band dissolved due to the death of its frontman (MacAldonich’s brother), MacAldonich stayed, becoming a small-scale farmer who sells his product at a farmer’s market. Living a small, slow-paced life seems to suit MacAldonich. But when he is pulled over while drunk, coupled with a prior arrest for marijuana possession, he is in danger of being deported. Because he has permanent resident status, he has the ability to fight the law, but that takes money and some luck. With the advice of his lawyer, he pleads “not guilty” to the DUI, even though his failed field sobriety test seems to give him a long shot to win. By the conclusion, the film leads to its obvious end, but is uncharacteristically uplifting. It’s certainly a dramatic situation, but California Solo doesn’t overplay the events, settling for an appropriate amount of emotion.
When it’s not concerned with MacAldonich’s legal status, the film confronts his past through his estranged family and love life. These are definitely subplots, but they give the film a more rounded feel, not keeping all of its focus inside of courtrooms and law offices. Scenes where MacAldonich builds a possibly romantic relationship with an attractive young woman or tries to make amends with his ex-wife and daughter, who he has no relationship with, aren’t exactly successful when in a vacuum, but they provide good context to the character. Like the major legal plotline, the film doesn’t put too much emphasis on MacAldonich’s various relationships, never letting the film get overly dramatic or feel self-important.
Robert Carlyle drives the film and is spectacular as the former rock star. It’s a comfortable, believable performance — he brings a natural melancholy that suits the role well. The character not only has to play the stuck depression of being in legal trouble, but also the baggage of past prominence and failure. Carlyle nails both of these tough characteristics effortlessly. Playing a former (and forgotten) rock icon suits Carlyle, who has a natural coolness and the right look. When we see him play music or hear his band’s recordings, it isn’t extraordinary, but he’s good enough to pass — the film also helps him by establishing his status as having a particular credibility in certain hipster circles, while making it clear he wasn’t a massive cross-over success. Like the other subplots, the music is used nicely to spice the rest film.
California Solo is a pretty nice character piece that effectively uses a cultural issue on the front of everyone’s mind. The film works because it doesn’t work too hard, never overplaying emotion or manipulating its audience to start yelling for some cause. The best reason to seek the film out, though, is Robert Carlyle. He’s an actor I’m certainly acquainted with through his roles in Trainspotting, The Full Monty and as a pretty decent Bond villain in a pretty bad Bond movie. I don’t know if he’s ever been better than in California Solo — maybe more bombastic or memorable in other roles, but not better.