The versatile, underrated Scotsman Robert Carlyle finally gets a starring role in California Solo, an unusual character study about a retired Britpop guitarist from the 1990s who moved to America after his band broke up and has been living for the past 15 years or so as a reclusive, alcoholic laborer, haunted by private demons from his past. By day, Lachlan MacAldonich works on an organic farm near Los Angeles and sells his prize tomatoes, radishes and corn at the Silver Lake farmer’s market in the city. At night, he hides away in a shabby secluded country shack where he deejays a podcast nobody listens to, playing records and dispensing information about classic rock stars like David Bowie and T-Rex while drinking himself unconscious. After he’s arrested for aggravated DUI, an old arrest for marijuana possession resurfaces, and instead of being slapped with a simple misdemeanor, Lachlan finds his immigration status in jeopardy. The movie is about how a simple man who thinks he’s managed to successfully forge a new life finds his peaceful existence turned upside down, and what humiliating and desperate things he is forced to do in order to avoid deportation.
Although Lachlan has become a legal permanent resident of the state of California, he has to hire an immigration lawyer to help him beat the rap and avoid jail time, but the man demands $5,000 he doesn’t have, plus another $10,000 to post bond. All of which dredges up the past Lachlan’s devoted his life to forgetting: his reputation back in the day as “the British Kurt Cobain” in a best-selling band called The Cranks, and the torturous guilt he feels for the drug-related death of his brother and band-mate. “California Solo” is the name of a hit song he recorded on his only solo album after the band broke up—and Mr. Carlyle sings it wistfully in the film’s most revealing scene—but that was years ago. Now his only hope of staying in the U.S. is to prove that his deportation would cause “extreme hardship” to a spouse or relative who is already a U.S. citizen. Against his will, Lachlan contacts the ex-wife and daughter he hasn’t seen for 10 years. The ex-wife (Kathleen Wilhoite) is less forgiving, but the daughter (Savannah Lathem) is so drawn to her Dad’s plight that she accompanies him on a wrenching trip to a pawnbroker to sell the vintage Les Paul guitar he played on his hit album. The film’s denouement involves the courageous ways Lachlan finds to resolve his past, face his future and find redemption.
The private hell of a man who tries to survive a fame that keeps intruding on his personal life is interwoven with writer-director Marshall Lewy’s critical feelings about America’s biased treatment of outsiders. The results are not always smooth. Lachlan is the only character who emerges as three-dimensional, and that is largely due to Mr. Carlyle’s sympathetic portrayal. There’s a dull and underdeveloped subplot about his unrequited attraction to a fickle female chef who buys his fresh produce, which never comes to anything at all, and his relationships with farm workers, bartenders and authority figures are superficial at best. But the star is vibrant and touching in every scene, often providing character revelations where none appear in the script. As his troubles increase along with his alcohol intake, it’s tough to watch him slide down the rabbit hole toward a bleak unknown. Mr. Carlyle, probably best known as the hardscrabble Dublin father of Frank and Malachy McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, and the divorced, unemployed steelworker who meets child support payments by becoming a male stripper in The Full Monty, takes full advantage of center-screen focus at last. In a bravura performance that is the primary don’t-miss reason for its existence, he gives California Solo all he’s got; even in scenes that just exist to pass the time, his presence informs the essence of the man he plays and the humanity of the film itself.
Running Time 94 minutes
Written and Directed by
Starring Robert Carlyle,
Alexia Rasmussen and Kathleen Wilhoite