A slight but sensitive and fantastically assured debut that unfolds with the pointillistic detail of a great short story, India Donaldson’s “Good One” is a coming-of-age story that jettisons all of the genre’s most familiar trappings in favor of a long walk in the woods.
There were supposed to be four people on the upstate New York camping trip, but one of the teens dropped out because he didn’t want to spend one of their last pre-college weekends sleeping in a polyester tent with his dad. That leaves anxious divorcee Chris (character actor James Le Gros, feasting on a nuanced leading role), his avuncular best friend Matt (Danny McCarthy, playing a character actor who would kill for a part this good), and Chris’ queer 17-year-old daughter Sam (extraordinary newcomer Lily Collias), who dutifully comes along because she’s always seen it as her job to keep what little peace is left in her family. To not be a burden. To make her parents feel like they still know her, even if they’ve been too busy dealing with their own shit to recognize the young woman she’s in the process of becoming. By the time Sam and her two large adult chaperones make it back to their car, that process will be painfully complete.
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Donaldson’s script doesn’t waste any time setting its terms, even if her film has the discipline and patience to wait for more than an hour before it finally activates them. Modest and casual until the exact moment when the film’s master plan suddenly clicks into place like the hammer of a gun transforming a neutral tool into a deadly weapon, “Good One” is the kind of movie that tightens its complete lack of tension into a knot in the pit of your stomach. It often reminded me of Julia Loktev’s little-seen but seldom-forgotten “The Loneliest Planet” in that sense. Wilson Cameron’s serene nature cinematography and Celia Hollander’s airy, Joanna Newsom-esque score don’t quite disabuse us from the notion that something terrible is eventually going to happen, even if they both play against the suspense (this doesn’t feel like a thriller until you start to project its family dynamics onto your own parents and/or children, at which point it becomes thoroughly harrowing), and when the worm finally turns it’s almost a relief that we can put it behind us. It’s sad and unfair, but also liberating in a way.
That being said, “Good One” is at its best when Donaldson is laying her trap. The chemistry — or at least the lived-in history — between these characters is instantly believable and constantly alchemizing in uncomfortable new ways. The story is carried forward on a loose string of almost subliminal micro-aggressions, most of which can be written off as the byproducts of relationships that have long since hardened into place. Chris, who seems loving but stressed about work and a million other things he can’t quite put a finger on, puts Sam to work as his secretary on the drive upstate, but he also makes his daughter sleep on the floor at the motel where they all stay the night before their camping trip begins. It doesn’t feel cruel for the two older men to claim the twin beds, but Chris’ personal comfort — in every sense of the word — proves to be a sticking point as the movie goes along.
Matt, on the other hand, is easier for Sam to talk to. Perhaps trying to mitigate the shame he feels over his son’s decision to stay home for the weekend, the barrel-chested goofball leans into the fact that he and Sam don’t share any of the same baggage that her father brings to the table; he speaks to her like she’s an adult, and plays up his own stunted manchild energy in a way that suggests “growing up” isn’t the big to-do that people make it out to be.
It’s possible that Chris resents that, but his issues with Matt seem to run much deeper. These guys have clearly lost track of whatever they once shared in common, and now they’re just performing the memory of a friendship because the alternative would be too painful for two men in their mid-50s who are already hurting more than they’d care to admit. The inane and improvised-sounding conversations between them on the trail never touch on anything real — the average scene finds Chris trudging on in silence while Matt rambles on about the various different animals that NASA has shot into space.
Sometimes it feels like Sam is the only one who’s picking up on any of this, even if she doesn’t let on about how uncomfortable it makes her (just as Donaldson, who refuses any shortcut that might interfere with the dignity of her storytelling, never allows her camera to dilute the watchfulness of Callias’ lucidly internal lead performance). There’s some occasional scoffing and rolling of the eyes, but Sam’s experience tends to be expressed through a more ambient kind of action. A split-diopter shot of her sneaking away to insert a fresh tampon stresses that she’s on a different wavelength from her two male companions, while the scene where she diligently cooks everyone’s dinner reiterates the gendered nature of what’s expected from her.
Matt and Chris both recognize that Sam is wise beyond her years (at least when it’s convenient for them to do so), but they still think she’s too young to appreciate the nuances of how life has gotten away from them. It’s to the great credit of Donaldson’s rich and promising debut that Matt and Chris might be right about that. Sam is certainly the purest and most noble of the film’s three main characters, but that doesn’t exonerate her from any lingering traces of naivete, and part of what makes her relationship with her dad so heartbreaking is that she’s yet to learn what life can do to you over the years. She rightly calls bullshit on Matt and Chris for absolving themselves of any responsibility for the state of their marriages and careers, but — like any clear-eyed teenager — she also overestimates the power of good intentions to keep things from going bad. Ironically, it will take an unambiguously severe fuck-up for her to appreciate the complexities of our own helplessness, and “Good One” is at its most brilliant and upsetting as it watches Sam mine a profound new strength from the agency that appreciation instills within her in return.
To that end, it almost doesn’t matter that the one big moment where everything changes is the only beat in the movie that rings a bit false. The nature of what happens is tragically credible, but I struggled to believe that this particular character — in that particular circumstance — would go rogue in the way that they do (in stark contrast to the turning point in “The Loneliest Planet,” which feels instantly and irrevocably true). That might be a gendered response in its own right, and I’ll be fascinated to see if other viewers feel the same way, but no matter: The understated but deeply resonant payoff that’s waiting for us on the other side of the big moment delivers all the same, as “Good One” resolves into a shattering portrait about the ways that kids lose touch with their parents, and how the lines of communications between them tend to petrify whenever keeping them open becomes too painful.
“Can we just have a nice day?,” Chris pleads with Sam at one point, LeGros’ performance aching with the exhausted urgency of a father who’s desperate to settle for unconditional love no matter the damage it causes. But Sam, who always thought she knew what adults wanted from her, has finally started to understand the full price of giving it to them. For the rest of her life, she’ll remember this as the weekend when she learned how to set her own terms. Sometimes coming-of-age only takes a few days. In this remarkable Sundance discovery, it takes less than 90 minutes.
“Good One” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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