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Two's company: Rewriting the buddy movie

Guns and macho banter have long been the staples of the traditional buddy movie. Now a new indie film is rewriting the script.

There was a time when a buddy film would have men being men and women, well, stuck at home doing the washing for all the interest that film-makers had in them. It was 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that set the rules of the genre and established that it was box-office dynamite to make movies where the two male leads bicker like an old married couple.

Any homoeroticism that this dynamic might have aroused was banished by showing Butch and Sundance getting their kicks by shooting their guns and placing their women firmly in the kitchen and bedroom. These guys had no sensitive side when it came to their gals. We're first introduced to Katharine Ross when Robert Redford holds a gun to her in a sexual power play. She simply chastises him for being "late". Soon afterwards Redford tells Paul Newman, whom he suspects of coveting his woman, that he can have her.

Little wonder, then that Philippa Glass in the Journal of Popular Film & Television argued that buddy films emerged in the 1970s as a response to feminism, arguing that "to punish women for their desire of sexual equality, the buddy film pushes them out of the centre of the narrative and replaces the traditional central romantic relationships between a man and a woman with a buddy relationship between two men. By making both protagonists men, the central issue of the film becomes the growth and development of their friendship. Women as potential love interests are thus either eliminated from the narrative space or pushed into the background as side characters".

The common qualities of the emerging buddy films were violence, witty banter and misogyny, which found a home in genre staples traditionally seen as the preserve of men – sports flicks, westerns, road movies and, most often, police dramas. The two seats at the front of the police car proved the perfect excuse to lock out women. There has been the occasional aberration where women have been given the central role in buddy stories, most notably Thelma and Louise in 1991; otherwise the conventions have remained the same.

Now, Goodbye Solo, from American director Ramin Bahrani, following hot on the heels of Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, marks the coming of age of the buddy movie. No longer are they boys' own adventures, these are tales are about men struggling with their emotions, powerless to change their environment and unable to alter events. Male bonding is still central, but the difference is that these films all feature emasculated men as their heroes.

The Solo of the title is the nickname given to a Senegalese taxi driver Souleymane (Souleymane Sy Savane), who picks up passengers in North Carolina, where director Bahrani was raised. On one such journey, William (Red West), a stoic 70-year-old, offers Solo $1,000 if he promises to drive him to a suicide spot, Blowing Rock, in a fortnight. Solo is convinced that should he befriend William and show him the joys of life so that his passenger will change his mind. So starts a friendship in which Solo leaves his wife and daughter and moves into William's hotel room, as if to prove that life can be changed for the better through sheer willpower alone.

Emotionally wrought, moving, wistful and sensitive are words not usually associated with the buddy movie. In fact, the maturation of the male bonding tale is reflective of a bigger change taking place in American cinema, one that has seen the 34-year-old Bahrani described as "the new great American film director" by the renowned film critic Roger Ebert. The change in attitude has come at a moment when independent American directors are starting to make films with a more European flavour.

Bahrani's two previous films are Man Push Cart, a melancholic New York tale of a Pakistani coffee stall owner, and Chop Shop, which focuses on a Dominican mechanic. New York film critic A O Scott argues that his films, alongside the works of Americans Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy), So Yung Kim (Treeless Mountain), Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half-Nelson, Sugar), and Lance Hammer (Ballast) belong to a new genre of film: neo-neo realism.

These are stories that depict unfamiliar characters – shopkeepers, homeless job-seekers, cab drivers, in short those not normally shown on screen – usually played by non-actors in roles that are close to their own lives. The locations and environments are all real, just as was the case with the Italian neo-realism films that appeared after the Second World War. There's more than a hint of realist Robert Bresson in the humanist and naturalist tone of these films.

The surprise of these films is that the traditional response of American cinema in times of economic hardship has been to indulge in escapist movies. Now, in the first recession of the post-9/11 era, it seems that American directors are responding with realism, an escape from escapism perhaps. The new economic reality may also have made it possible for these films to reach an audience for the first time. When the American independents first broke the ubiquity of the studio system, studios soon began to throw money at directors such as Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, creating their own companies to make mid-budget independent films. In no time at all, American independents became formulaic, specialising in the wacky, with quirky love stories or offbeat comedies.

The closure of their independent arms by most studios has cut off an avenue to financing for indie film-makers. Now directors are working on budgets where even paying for mid-level stars is untenable. Directors such as Bahrani and Reichardt teach to make ends meet when not filming, but conversely the lack of money also gives them more power over their own films. All of a sudden, the budgets in the independent American sector are comparable to those in Europe, so these directors have taken to making films in the tried-and-tested manner of their European counterparts. The great news for audiences is that a lot of the clichés of American film, including the buddy movie, are being ripped to pieces. More pertinently, a whole previously unseen segment of life in the United States is reaching our cinema screens.

Goodbye Solo is out on 9 October

Double act: The best buddy movies

Withnail and I (1987)

Withnail (Richard E Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) abandon squalid London life for a break in the countryside cottage of Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). Audiences have been drinking to their tumultuous escapades ever since.

48 Hours (1982)

Eddie Murphy is at his hilarious best as the wise-cracking criminal allowed out on parole for two days to help a hard-nosed San Francisco cop (Nick Nolte) in his latest investigation.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Director John Schlesinger won an Oscar for his pairing of a young wannabe male prostitute (Jon Voight) with a sickly cripple (Dustin Hoffman), who form an unlikely friendship on the streets of New York.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Sisters can do it for themselves. This film overturned the belief that violent road movies with witty gun-totting protagonists were the preserve of men.