A teenage girl peeks through tree branches.

Sundance Film Review: Good One

Film Reviews

Sundance Film Review: Good One
Director: India Donaldson

Smudge Films, International Pigeon Production, Baird Street Pictures & Tinygiant
Premiere: 01.21

“What do you mean, these women?” asks Sam, the 18-year-old protagonist of Good One played by Lily Collias. She’s at lunch with her father and his friend just before they embark on a three day hiking trip in the Catskills, and while I can’t remember the context of Matt (Sam’s dad’s friend, played masterfully by Danny McCarthy) saying ‘these women’, I did note it. There are a lot of things to note as Matt, Sam and her father Chris (James Le Gros) walk through the gorgeous woods and rivers of upstate New York, and they aren’t all bad either. Matt’s pretty funny, and Sam and him have a good rapport. Chris is a stern but warm guide, and Matt and him have a lot of great stories to tell, even if they don’t always tell them well. But Matt’s comment (‘these women’) lingers in your mind as they continue. That’s Good One‘s greatest achievement amid a bouquet of feats.

Writer and director India Donaldson has made an impeccable debut feature with a crew that brought their A-game. Celia Hollander‘s score and soundtrack invite you into the world immediately and I can’t wait for the IMDb soundtrack listing and Spotify playlist. Collias’ performance is deep as hell, providing Sam with a rich, believable internal life that makes the character live and breathe right in front of you. (Likely in no small part to the journal entries she wrote as Sam to prepare.) McCarthy’s role is a difficult one, juggling ‘loveable fool’, ‘washed-up pity’ and ‘fallible creep’, but he sticks the landing just as Donaldson intended. Speaking of Donaldson, her direction is classic and self-assured, using bread-and-butter techniques like long zoom, pan and tracking shots with confidence, making you feel the time pass as the trio moves. Her greatest achievement here is putting us in Sam’s mind with a breezy script.. We’re laughing with her, noting the small sexist comments with her and quietly going with her behind a tree to replace her tampon. I may not have had these experiences when I was a teenage boy, but I’m actively learning as the film carries on.

I only use the word breezy because Good One never feels accusatory. (After all, Donaldson dedicated the film to her father and partner before the world premiere screening.) There are great films that directly call out men for their regularly toxic, demeaning and foolish behavior, and I adore those works as well, but what Donaldson does is portray these men honestly. She doesn’t pass any objective judgment on them — that’s for us to decide — but she does lay down a confident trail to the complicated conclusion: Matt’s funny until he isn’t. Chris will look out for Sam until it gets complicated. Sam’s considered wise beyond her years by the men until she criticizes them. Men are fallible and adults make mistakes. Being a good kid doesn’t mean taking any and all shit.

Drawing on the writer-director’s own experiences as a teenage girl, Good One offers a realistic portrayal of the silver lining that defines male friendship and the relationship between father and daughter, and how those dynamics falter. –Max Bennion

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.