Sundance 2024 Review: GOOD ONE, Slow-Motion Family Implosion

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2024 Review: GOOD ONE, Slow-Motion Family Implosion

Recreational camping — and its corollary, hiking or backpacking — has been part of the American experience for more than a century.

For the minority who enjoy “roughing it,” leaving modern comforts like running water, functioning toilets, and central heating behind can be a mostly positive experience. By accepting the temporary suspension of those comforts, campers, hikers, and backpackers also embrace the old-school idea of “American exceptionalism,” of proving ourselves against whatever the elements have to offer while simultaneously keeping in mind that warm beds, hot showers, and cooked meals are only a day’s hike out of a forest at worst.

For Sam (Lily Collias, a revelatory, show-stopping performance), the protagonist of writer-director India Donaldson’s deeply felt, wryly observant feature-length debut, Good One, backpacking and camping in the Catskills with her middle-aged father, Chris (James Le Gros), and his longtime best friend, Matt (Danny McCarthy), the camping-backpacking trip signals an endpoint, a marker between different stages of her life. The offers Sam one last opportunity for quality time with her father before college — and the demands of college life — inevitably pulls her away into adulthood with all of its complications, complexities, and changes.

Almost immediately, however, the weekend begins to stray from its moorings. Matt’s teenage son, Dylan (Julian Grady), refuses to join the trip, leaving Sam alone with two semi-adult men on the camping trip. Without choice or alternative, she’s forced to navigate their ever-changing moods, attitudes, and interactions with each other, often from an emotional distance, occasionally up close and personal as Chris and Matt’s friendship, primarily a function of time and nostalgia, begins to fray and eventually fissure. Less by choice than necessity, the situation forces Sam, the “good one” according to Matt due to her easy-going, mellow nature, to meditate a temporary truce between the two men.

Donaldson’s script lays out the key differences in Chris and Matt’s personalities and backgrounds in the initial moments: Obsessive to the point of likely annoying the people around him, the know-it-all, seen-it-all Chris takes early and frequent control of the camping trip and its details. He’s a bit of a Type-A control freak, organizing the trip around checklists, and double- and triple-checking their gear, supplies, and perishables to ensure they’ll have what they need for the camping trip.

In stark contrast, Matt’s haphazard, thoughtless approach to the trip can be immediately detected in his choice to wear uncomfortable jeans rather than cotton shorts on the long hike to the camping site. He also decides to bring a 1,000-page book and a flask containing alcohol.

Yet Matt also forgets his sleeping bag, leaving it behind in the car. Matt’s natural sloppiness offers a clue as to his attitude toward the great outdoors: It’s a lark worth at most a few minutes of prep time. And if all else fails, Chris will bail him out when and if needed.

Where Chris and Matt are more alike than not, though, is in their messy personal lives. Both are middle-aged men. Chris divorced Sam’s mother and married a much younger woman while Matt engaged in a perfunctory affair that ruined his marriage and potentially scuttled his relationship with his son.

Both men lean into whatever excuses they can find for their selfish, self-entitled behavior. Sam, more together emotionally than either man, acts and reacts as the adult in the room – or rather the adult in the tent.

Donaldson’s script adds an intentional layer of menace in the form of another all-male camping group that decides against all camping etiquette to pitch their tents within a few feet of Sam, Chris, and Matt. While Chris and Matt, ever oblivious (a running theme here) to Sam’s discomfort at their presence, go along to get along. Time and again with the other campers and later Matt, Chris chooses the path of least resistance, placing Sam in an awkward, if ultimately illuminating, position with her father.

A three-way character study with Sam at the center, Good One slowly builds toward a devastating moment involving the trio. Occurring offscreen, it’s delivered via a line of dialogue between Sam and her father.

In that interaction between father and daughter, one in which an emotionally vulnerable Sam all but pleas for Chris’s understanding, respect, and support, the fault lines in their relationship reveal themselves. Donaldson leaves unanswered the question of whether Sam and Chris can reconcile or whether Sam, seeing her father in the cold light of morning, can accept him as he is, both flawed and at least where Matt is concerned, willfully ignorant or blind.

Good One premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

Good One

  • India Donaldson
  • India Donaldson
  • Lily Collias
  • Sumaya Bouhbal
  • Valentine Black
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
Danny McCarthyGood OneIndia DonaldsonJames Le GrosLily ColliasSumaya BouhbalValentine BlackDrama

More about Good One

Around the Internet