Sometimes a life has to wash its hands of its best attributes in order to move on. So it goes for Lachlan (Robert Carlyle), the protagonist of “California Solo.” Doing modest work for a farmer’s market slightly off the grid, Lachlan’s youthful good looks have abandoned him, his wiry frame now dedicated to lifting barrels of radishes instead of strumming guitars. The days of starring in Brit-rock band The Cranks have been left behind, and Lachlan now nurses mysterious wounds from a career that ended in tragedy. When invited to celebrate his band’s legacy, he says, “I don’t do anything like that anymore.” Prompted further, he tersely says, “Anything interesting.”
Lachlan’s post-rock life isn’t happy, but he’s got a certain level of contentment. The past only revisits him on his own clock, as he hosts a regular podcast dedicated to rock’s more colorful final acts, titled “Flameout.” It’s significant foreshadowing, as a relatively unremarkable DUI leads to current immigration laws threatening his citizenship, legal unless compromised with convictions like this and a distant marijuana charge. “California Solo” moves deliberately through a legal maze that threatens a low-key but tenuous lifestyle, though his mostly-unspoken distant history makes a return to the U.K. a foreboding threat.
Carlyle’s performance is fascinating in its naturalism, and he wears this character like a scarf: comfortably, but close to the heart. It’s a standout element in a mostly quiet affair — writer-director Marshall Lewy amps up a single guitar strum on the soundtrack to inflate a relatively pedestrian situation, where the actors playing lawyers and immigration agents are comparatively low-temperature, professional types that bring a modest sense of realism to the proceedings. “California Solo” is a character piece about a man all-too-willing to confess he is broken, but its strongest moments come from the mundane workaday details, whether it’s Lachlan on the farm, or his lawyer flipping through paperwork, presenting life-changing legal options as if they were just brushing their perfectly-coiffed hair.
One of Lachlan’s Hail Mary chances of staying in the country depends on a provision that allows him to prove his worth to those around him, to avoid deportation by suggesting some sort of legacy. However, his cut ties with his own rock past prove to be a burden, and his lack of roots and melancholic solitude make “establishing one’s worth” difficult. On one level, the commentary on rock’s faded history is intriguing, and Lachlan’s pitiful attempts to establish his rock bonafides to the less knowledgeable are cringe-worthy in his own shame. But when he looks up a former flame and his estranged daughter, it also suggests they’re the closest thing he has to family, and that he has to justify himself as more than just an irrelevant artist.
“California Solo” only builds up as much realistic tension and conflict as it can before the seemingly-sensible Lachlan takes a significant right turn into self-destruction. Carlyle is a skilled actor, but there’s not much he can convey to show this desperate, sad character’s descent into minor bacchanalia. It’s a miscalculation, a third act reversal of the realism of the first two, and a betrayal of Carlyle’s wonderfully calibrated performance. “California Solo” rolls when it’s at its best, but in an attempt to rock, it only creates background noise, and you wonder where the nuance goes as he gets close to his daughter, telling her wicked stories of rockstar hangovers and bonding with the youth in an attempt to create a connection. But at this point, the movie cannot be trusted, as the character’s already been tempted to develop relationships with his stubborn boss (A. Martinez) and his teenage son, and a local woman (Alexia Rasmussen) and her DJ boyfriend (Danny Masterson). By the time Lachlan tries to reconnect with family, it’s merely the latest in a checklist of failed connections, and what was once warm about “California Solo“ surrenders to schematics. [B-]