For movie nerds like yours truly who grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s on films like Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation and Rob Schmidt’s Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, an outrageous horror comedy with nods to QAnon is an easy movie to love. Thankfully, Dutch Southern’s quirky Only the Good Survive rises the occasion. In the days before streaming, this SXSW premiere feels like one of those late-night movies about which word spread amongst kids around your high school lunch table.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always break-out Sidney Flanigan plays Brea, an adopted young woman separated from her sister who is in search of both her family and a family. She finds herself on the wrong side of an interrogation table as the local sheriff for this backwater, Cole Mack (played by ’90s indie film staple Fred Weller), tries piecing together the sordid state of affairs that first involves a robbery attempt gone wrong before quickly escalating into a kidnapping.
Retracing her steps, we learn Brea fell head over heels in love with Ry (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), who works at the local watering hole with bouncer Erve (Will Ropp). Erve comes with a loaded past and extensive criminal record of which we soon learn and he, along with lover Dev (Darius Fraser), conspire to rob an elderly couple of a series of rare gold coins that were supposed to be removed for circulation decades ago. As the three guys conspire one night they realize they need a lookout and reluctantly bring Brea into the fold.
That’s where the plot starts going awry, and Brea and Ry finding a baby in the elder couple’s home sets off a showdown between a group of essentially lost, traumatized kids and powerful, fundamentally religious forces in town. Only the Good Survive contains all the twists and turns of a rambling thriller narrative that lands somewhere between Scott Pilgrim and The Usual Suspects. Fittingly, Southern framed his introduction as a love letter to Austin; it’s easy to connect the dots between a creative “Slackerwood” in a middle of a red state.
Embracing a punk aesthetic, its rapid-fire editing finds the narrative bouncing between Brea and Sheriff Mack, who abruptly cuts her off at every turn, thinking he’s digging further into the twisted set of affairs they’ve accidentally set off. While not wholly an original creation, the film delights in its punk zine nature, borrowing the devices that worked elsewhere and just throwing the rest against the wall to see what sticks. The result is a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing, even if at times we might have been a pace or two ahead of the characters.
Only the Good Survive is a very different turn for Flanigan, who––as the story goes––was a teenage musician discovered in western New York by Eliza Hittman, casting her powerful work of social realism as a teenage woman traveling to New York City to seek an abortion after wasting her time at a crisis pregnancy center. Here she radiates empathy as the final girl with everything except her last move figured out: she has a critical secret that’s best left unspoiled even if it might not match the twists and turns of the first two acts.
As far as horror thrillers go, Only the Good Survive suggests a pleasant surprise from another time––something to be stumbled across at the video store, an accident sent to you by Columbia House, or an HBO late-night movie that captured your attention and kept you up for hours.
Only the Good Survive premiered at SXSW 2023.