It’s been nearly two decades since Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy showed how the wilderness can be an open canvas to explore the breaking points of male friendship and reckoning with a midlife crisis. While those emotional quandaries are evergreen, it’s appropriate timing to bring an entirely new element to this conceit. India Donaldson’s carefully observed, refreshingly patient, beautifully rendered debut feature Good One shifts the perspective, concerning a 17-year-old girl who embarks on a camping trip in the Catskills with her father and his best friend. Through an accumulation of minute details and uneasy glances, the drama becomes a portrait of increasingly crossed boundaries leading to an ultimate breaking point.

What was originally envisioned as a four-person backpacking trip into the woods with Sam (Lily Collias), her father Chris (James Le Gros), his best friend Matt (Danny McCarthy), and Matt’s son Dylan quickly turns to three when Dylan abruptly decides not to come. Thus Sam must solely deal with the topics du jour, from banter about thinking training for a marathon is still in the cards to a more complex reckoning with the divorcees’ failed romantic relationships. As overprepared as he is overbearing, the tightly wound Chris often clashes with the more happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care Matt, who forgot to pack his sleeping bag, and Sam is witness to it all. With the vast, isolating expanse of the forest giving the emotional space to ponder life’s regrets, and the rather timid Sam not having much to experience in this regard, she becomes privy to the kinds of conversations and revelations there simply won’t be room for during the busy grind of daily life. 

With a trio of stellar performances, particularly from Collias, Donaldson wrings out acute tension on the trip through a death by a thousand emotional cuts. For Sam, still coming to terms as a queer teenager, her identity is nonchalantly dismissed by Matt, thinking he’s caring by asking the question but then immediately interrupting her. Her dad accuses her of packing food bars in the wrong way when he was the one to pack them, while Sam dismissively asks her how her “nature pee” was when she’s actually dealing with her period. Sam, who clearly feels uncomfortable articulating personal boundaries, is now feeling like she’s crashing a weekend between two long-time friends wrestling with their own regrets. Good One’s dramatic weight lives on Collias’ face and gestures as her character weathers this uncertainity. As gorgeous and tranquil as Wilson Cameron’s cinematography of the surroundings can be, Good One‘s greatest strength is seeing preciously how Sam will react to any given situation.

It could have been easy to reserve any emotional complexity for Sam, but Donaldson adds layers to the fathers of the film––Matt reveals his inner wounds when it comes to the tumultuous relationship with his son and Chris, embarking on a new family, and contemplating his own midlife crisis with a backpacking trip through China. This attention to each character pays off when the drama reaches a breaking point, as one sentence shatters the experience for Sam. When his point of no return happens, Sam’s entire world feels upended and we’re even further keyed into her reactions, as Donaldson brilliantly narrows the scope of the film to have the viewer focus on how Sam will react.

Earlier in the film, when the question is posed what they’d rather do if they lived different lives, Sam retorts, “I feel like I still get to choose this one.” Indeed, while Good One captures two men who feel like they will likely never truly change, destined to just discuss what went wrong in their lives, it’s mostly a portrait of a teenager discovering there’s a more fulfilling life ahead. Already more emotionally attuned than the men that surround her, Sam’s formative experience feels like it will set a precedent for all future interactions. Ending on a slight yet impactful moment of rebellion, Good One is an acutely felt portrait of impending womanhood and a remarkable debut for India Donaldson.

Good One premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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