Film Review: California SoloRobert Carlyle’s layered performance as an embittered musician facing his demons gives this fragile drama some emotional heft.
Writer-director Marshall Lewy’s California Solo is a melancholy character study of a burnt-out former Britpop rocker steered by misfortune onto a path of possible redemption. While the script veers toward familiar melodrama and is not without cliché, the minor-key film benefits from Robert Carlyle’s soulful performance in the central role, bouncing back and forth between dulled resignation and self-destructive anger.
A Scotsman voluntarily exiled in California, where he works on an organic farm outside Los Angeles, Lachlan MacAldonich (Carlyle) has a lot of rough-edged charm and humor to offset his failings. That appeal is clearly evident to Beau (Alexia Rasmussen), a similarly unfulfilled regular customer at the Silver Lake farmers’ market where Lachlan sells produce.
A high-school dropout who got swept up in the glory days of the Manchester music scene, Lachlan was the guitarist in a culty 1990s rock band. But their bid for immortality was undercut by the sudden death of the talented front-man, Lachlan’s older brother. His guilt over having supplied the drugs that killed him has kept Lachlan from returning to the U.K. He now finds oblivion in a whiskey bottle every night while recording “Flame-Outs,” a podcast series “where we consider the tragic and sometimes spectacular deaths of the world’s greatest musicians.”
Lewy sniffs around the possibility of a relationship with Beau, but that never quite happens. The character is unsatisfyingly drawn, with too few personal insights to make her interesting. The understatement works better in Lachlan’s gentle friendship with the farm owner (A Martinez) and his teenage son (Eli Vargas), who remain supportive of him despite his unreliability.
Lachlan is arrested early in the movie on DUI charges, and a conviction from many years earlier for marijuana possession comes back to haunt him. Despite being a legal resident in the U.S. for 12 years, he risks being repatriated unless he can prove that his removal would cause extreme hardship for a spouse or relative who is an American citizen.
As his options run out, Lachlan is forced to dredge up the past, contacting his estranged ex-wife (Kathleen Wilhoite) and 13-year-old daughter (Savannah Lathem) in a clumsy bid to work that angle. Lewy declines to go down the prosaic road of rescuing him. But a lovely scene between the smart, sensitive young girl (played with disarming delicacy by Lathem) and the father she has never known plants the seed for Lachlan to reclaim some kind of a life.
Shot in soft light and muted tones in and around Los Angeles, and graced by composer T. Griffin’s mellow acoustic score, the film favors nonjudgmental observation over muscular drama, meaning it’s somewhat underpowered. Even Lachlan’s booze-fueled meltdown or his explosions of impotent rage over the tricky immigration laws yield only passing moments of volatility.
But Carlyle gives California Solo a bruised heart. (His slight resemblance to music veteran Paul Weller, the former lead of The Jam and Style Council, adds flavor to his portrayal of a one-time Britpop fixture.) The actor’s work here is both character-specific and universal in its midlife reflections on bad decisions, poor planning and youthful mistakes, ending on a hopeful note that suggests it’s never too late to shake off the numbness and try again.
—The Hollywood Reporter