Cannes 2024 review: Good One (India Donaldson)

“Donaldson’s portrayal of strained group dynamics lingers long after the credits roll because of its well-observed and incisive look at human nature.”

Sometimes the words unspoken say the most in first-time director India Donaldson’s Good One, a tiny drama about a giant chasm between generations that is a slow burn reminiscent of early Kelly Reichardt. With incisive precision both behind the camera and in front of it, Good One is a film destined to have a long life on the American festival circuit and in small release (Metrograph Pictures releases the film stateside in August). Audiences will have to have patience though, because the film does not have large dramatic beats, but more an accumulation of tension that never truly erupts. At its conclusion not much has changed at first glance, but the power dynamics between the three characters that Good One revolves around have definitely shifted.

Sam (Lily Collias) and her divorced father Chris (James Le Gros) prepare for a multi-day hiking trip through the Catskills. Chris’s best friend Matt (Danny McCarthy), a failed actor, is tagging along on his own, as his son refuses to join the trio. Chris comes meticulously prepared, although it is revealed later that he too can falter, his know-it-all attitude flying in his face. Matt is decidedly less ready for the trip, a fact that his best friend likes to rub in his face without an ounce of friendly banter. As the single teen on a trip with two middle-aged men, Sam is forced to sit through tall tales and dad jokes, which turns into embarrassment when Chris starts posturing to a group of hikers Sam’s age who join their makeshift camp for a night. Sam slowly reveals great human insight as she acutely analyzes the relationship issues of her traveling companions; she is more of a grown-up than the two bickering men. On the final night Matt crosses a line, and when Sam confronts her dad the next morning he shrugs it off. This is the signal for Sam to take matters into her own hands and let the men feel her pent-up frustration.

Like the buzzing insects that accompany the three hikers through a grand and oblivious slice of American nature, the simmering emotions keep up a steady hum of irritation throughout the trip. Good One isn’t so much a film of eloquent dialogue but of looks, most notably those of Collias’ Sam. Donaldson films these with patience and great precision; a crucial conversation between Sam and her dad, in which he doesn’t acknowledge her discomfort, half obscures Sam’s face behind Chris’s head, but the one eye that can be seen says a thousand words. The film has many such moments in which facial expressions and body language tell it all. Collias gives a strong performance in a difficult role as a timid but wise teenager who has a strained relationship with her dad, and who sees good rapport with her dad’s friend turn sour by a single remark.

Juxtaposing the barely hidden disdain and hostility between the men, and the difficult relationship Sam has with them, with the tranquility of the Catskills functions only to further underline the uncomfortable situations and awkward silences. The birds, the butterflies, the salamanders, they don’t care about the bickering humans trudging through their territory. It shows that the petty banter and the empty grandstanding mean so little in the grand scheme of things. Instead of enjoying their place in the world, these men are too self-absorbed to notice.

As Good One draws to an end, Donaldson wisely keeps the drama low. This isn’t a film that asks for melodrama, not when an absence of communication is such a prominent part of the film. For some audiences that might make the film undercooked, but Donaldson’s portrayal of strained group dynamics, though a bit hard to get into, lingers long after the credits roll because of its well-observed and incisive look at human nature, from Sam’s desire to take more control of her life to the difficulties of dads having to talk to their children.