This review is part of our coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: Sam (Lily Collias) is wise beyond her years, a 17-year-old girl with a solid head on her shoulders and an innate ability to notice and observe those around her. She’s set to go on a three-day hike in the Catskills with her fiftysomething type-A dad, Chris (James Le Gros), and his snarky lifelong friend, Matt (Danny McCarthy). Both men are divorced — Chris years prior, with a new younger wife now, while Matt is in the middle of his own messy separation — and Matt’s son decides last minute to duck out of the trip, still angry at his dad.
That leaves Sam alone with these two older men, who trek through the woods bumping egos and ruminating on their past glories and present failures. All the while, Sam listens, observes, and serves as an unwitting arbitrator to these men’s furtive grasps at profundity. It’s a quiet, unassuming trip that will make Sam look at both men in irrevocable new ways.
How Did You Get So Wise? In its opening minutes, writer/director India Donaldson’s feature debut lulls you into a false sense of security — the plaintive folk-guitar soundtrack, Wilson Cameron’s lush, vivid cinematography capturing the verdant greens and babbling brooks of the Catskill Mountains. It’s an equilibrium echoed in Sam’s perspective: Collias plays her as quiet and observant, perpetually able to navigate her passive-aggressive father’s emotional and practical needs — a skill she’s clearly developed over the years. For girls like Sam, being the “good one” in the family is more than collegiality; it’s a survival mechanism that plays out in the subtle verbal tugs of war throughout the film.
Like Sam, Donaldson lets the various dramas of Good One play out in the rat-a-tat conversations between Chris and Matt, two guys who fall into a familiar fraternal dynamic even after decades of life choices and stunted ambitions. Chris is the quintessential Hiking Dad, obsessed with proper backpacking procedures while he presses others to do what he wants. Matt, meanwhile, is an out-of-shape jerk who’s clearly coasted on frat-boy charm through his life, facing the consequences of his mistakes.
Midway through the film, they intercept a trio of younger guys who set up camp with them; the atmosphere practically stinks with testosterone as the two older men come face-to-face with the boys they’d so clearly like to be again. There’s a kind of pathetic relatability to these two guys, men who never thought they’d have to grow old and who don’t really know what to do now that they’re there. Le Gros and McCarthy play these notes well, the lingering embers of a tightknit friendship tested by their own innate cowardice.
Walking Is Cool. I Love Walking: In the middle of it all is Collias, a brilliant, self-possessed performer whose greatest skill lies in her ability to listen to her scene partners. Her probing eyes and wry smile evoke a young Winona Ryder, while hiding swells of internal pain and betrayal like Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Every gesture, every line carries immense psychological weight behind it, selling the journey of a girl realizing that there’s little safety or reward for just going with the flow. Few actors command so much interest while outwardly doing so little, and that’s a testament to Collias’ interiority and Donaldson’s clear command of actors.
It helps, of course, that the script is loping and naturalistic in all the right ways, teasing out small but profound details about the lives of quiet desperation its characters are living. The forest is a perfect way to get away from it all, but Good One supports the idea that you simply bring all those demons into the wilderness with you. By the time the entire movie turns on a single scene — a single line, even — you scarcely notice it’s coming, same as Sam. And the quiet fallout from that moment is haunting, one born not of confrontation but of inaction.
The Verdict: It’s tempting to come to Sundance looking for big, explosive debuts that cry out to be noticed, featuring showy performances from big stars or idiosyncratic tonal or genre swings. Good One offers the opposite of that, a movie that keeps all its combustion tightly coiled and contained. From the get, Donaldson has a tremendous command of pace and silence, laying the desperation of middle age (and how it looks to those whose lives are still ahead of them) bare with little more than a gesture or a closeup. It’s a killer debut for both her and Collias, and it will be exciting to see what both can do with the momentum a picture like this can provide.
Where to Watch: Good One premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Distribution is pending.