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The Soloist

SoloistOne day Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez notices a homeless man in a downtown park playing a two-stringed violin.  Intrigued by the intensity of his playing, Lopez stops to talk to the man.  He discovers that the man is Nathaniel Ayers, an accomplished musician who previously attended the Julliard School of Music in New York, studying the cello.  Lopez is moved to write a column about Ayers.  Lopez continues to visit Nathaniel and develops a relationship with him.  Lopez writes more stories about Nathaniel.  A reader is moved to donate a cello for Nathaniel’s use.

This is the premise of the film, The Soloist.  I like the movie on many levels.  It is a powerful story of friendship.  Lopez is first drawn to Nathaniel out of curiosity.  As the relationship grows, Lopez tries to find ways to assist Nathaniel with his predicament.  It is obvious to Lopez that Nathaniel is schizophrenic.  The film does not gloss over the inherent difficulties with this friendship.  Lopez and Nathaniel come from different worlds.  Nathaniel’s mental illness causes his behavior to be unpredictable, fluctuating from docile to paranoid to highly agitated.  Nathaniel lives on the street, and does not want to live in a shelter or a small apartment which Lopez tries to arrange for him.

Lopez’s editor Mary (and ex-wife) challenges him to examine his own motives in the relationship.  Is Nathaniel really a friend, or just a story that will make him look good?  Lopez examines his own “Messiah” complex.  Can he “save” Nathaniel from his illness?  Nathaniel even calls Steve his God for a period of time.  Anyone in ministry knows the importance of sorting out their own Messiah complex.

soloistLopez arranges for Nathaniel to attend a concert of the Los Angeles Symphony at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and to meet a cello player who agrees to give him some lessons.  In these scenes, we see the power of music to transform.  Even as Nathaniel demonstrates proficiency at the cello, his illness is still very much present.  Lopez even arranges for a disastrous recital for Nathaniel, who is unable to handle the pressure. 

On the whole, The Soloist is a remarkably astute and compassionate film about homeless persons.  While Nathaniel is its main character, the film introduces us to many other homeless persons at a shelter known as LAMP.  Each homeless person is a unique individual with his/her own story.  The fact that the film uses many persons who are actually homeless, and not actors, gives it a strong sense of authenticity.  Phil, a staff person at LAMP demonstrates patience, tenderness, and understanding with the clients.  There’s an interesting exchange between Phil and Lopez regarding medication for Nathaniel.  Lopez believes Nathaniel should be forced to take medication for his illness; Phil honors Nathaniel’s right to refuse medication. 

soloistIn these times in which newspapers are struggling to stay alive, The Soloist takes us inside the workings of a large paper, with a large staff, editors, and reporters frantically chasing stories.  As many city newspapers struggle for their very existence, the film serves as a testimony to their power to raise public awareness about the homeless and many other concerns.   

The Soloist features a strong cast, including Robert Downey, Jr., as Steve, and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel.  Their scenes together are very well done.  I hope they are remembered when award season comes at the end of the year.  The always excellent Catherine Keener is great in the supporting role of Mary, Lopez’s editor, ex-wife, and friend.

Every day I encounter homeless persons in my role as the pastor of a downtown church.  Like Steve Lopez, I wish I could “fix” them. The Soloist reminds me that “fixing” them is not my job.  Who says they are even the ones who need fixing!  Mary challenges Steve about Nathaniel, “Maybe he just needs a friend.”  Don’t we all.   


Tom Condon, OP     








The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.