Good One, India Donaldson
Still courtesy of Sundance

‘Good One’ Challenges Adulthood’s Naïve Appropriation of Wisdom 

India Donaldson’s directorial debut Good One leans into gender distinctions, but goes beyond them to offer incisive and observant critique of human nature.

Good One
India Donaldson
21 January 2024 (Sundance)

“[…] change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass.” 

John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday

Director India Donaldson’s feature debut, Good One, opens to a creek’s calm and soothing sound, with images of slugs and worms. The sights and sounds of nature are mixed with the lyricism of a guitar tune featuring the flute. This tranquil opening transitions to a child chattering in a New York apartment, where 17-year-old Sam (Lily Collias) is preparing for a backpacking trip to the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York, with her father Chris (James Le Gros) and his best friend Matt (Danny McCarthy). Sam’s young step-sibling noisily plays, her stepmother flits around in the chaos, while Sam and her girlfriend, Jessie (Sumaya Bouhbal), spend their last few hours together. 

From the opening scene, Donaldson introduces her attentive gaze to contrasts that will be a recurring theme, but beneath its story, Good One is like a painting. There’s a stillness in moments as the camera rests upon its characters. In 2015, reviewing On Set with John Carpenter: The Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker, I referenced how the English artist C.R.W Nevinson‘s World War I paintings captured a world brimming with movement and sound set in stillness. When one gazes upon his work, it’s possible to sense a story unfolding. 

Should cinema struggle to conceal the slightest of movements, a shot’s framing can possess a painting’s aesthetic. There are moments in Good One that feel as if Donaldson and her cinematographer, Wilson Cameron, have used their camera and the screen to paint portraits of characters in nature. Either in the soul of the film or in the audience’s memory are a series of canvases with the characters set in stillness that challenge the limiting perspective that art is either still or moving.

Composer Celia Hollander’s original music has a unique sound, and wind chimes effectively combine artificial sound with natural elements. Musically, there’s a near-perfect harmony between humankind and nature in Good One, except for a few moments when the music intrudes upon the diegetic soundscape. It’s a minor quibble.

Donaldson’s use of Hollander’s score captures the gentle wonder in Sam’s gaze and serves other communicative purposes. Donaldson, Hollander, Cameron, and editor Graham Mason blend Good One‘s aesthetics into the natural environment. The film doesn’t seek to appropriate nature as its characters’ world. Instead, it communicates a deeper respect for nature.

Donaldson skilfully creates a journey inside Good One‘s narrative, revealing Sam’s desire to be more extroverted. There’s an uncertainty or lack of confidence holding her back, and that provokes a conflict. If she feels she struggles to find her voice, the audience sees a thoughtful young woman with a critical mind. This tension of adopting a negative point-of-view of ourselves that we project onto how others see us is common. This dynamic of critical thought and insecurity makes Sam an engaging and likeable character who shares her vulnerability with the audience.

Gradually, the weak points in the relationships reveal themselves, and Sam shows maturity beyond her years. In Good One, adolescence becomes the bearer of wisdom and not adulthood. All the characters possess a self-awareness, but where Sam’s is instinctive, Chris and Matt’s needs to be guided and encouraged. 

Sam first demonstrates her emotional intelligence during a conversation with Matt, who is recently separated. He opens up about why his son, who has been distant since the break-up, hasn’t joined them. She suggests Matt try to see things from his son’s point-of-view. It’s an idea that will become a haunting and decisive thought in the story.

A recurring conversation in Good One reflects on failed relationships and the absence of personal responsibility. When Chris suggests April, his ex-wife was at fault first, Sam challenges him. She says both he and her mother were to blame for the break-up. “We’re all complicit,” says Matt, thinking about his own marriage. 

Donaldson plays with our expectations in an effective twist so subtle that it could go unnoticed. Chris is positioned as the more emotionally intelligent of the two men. He’s likely to be humbler and in touch with his emotions. Donaldson, subverts these expectations, revealing Chris’ defensiveness, that lends him a gentle arrogance or ignorance. In a later scene, he says, “You know, the best thing you can do is have a family. That’s the last step in your maturity.”

Another way to describe Chris is that he’s emotionally naïve, especially as he’s on his second marriage and has fathered children with two women. His masculine bravado, opposite his daughter’s emotional sensitivity, conforms to traditional gender divisions. Donaldson, however, goes beyond these to explore unprejudiced human truths, with Sam representing continual personal growth, opposite Chris’ belief in an endpoint. 

The young can temporarily perch themselves on a pedestal because they’re yet to make the decisions that make adulthood untidy. Matt says he doesn’t understand how life becomes untethered. “It happens to the best of us,” says Chris. 

Sam doesn’t judge her father or Matt. Instead, she possesses a thoughtful pragmatism and is grounded in the moment. She may not say it, but she’s aware that her life will be untidy too. It’s something she’s likely already familiar with. Sam’s supposed innocence and her lack of regret are in stark contrast to the two men. 

A discussion about rewriting one’s present highlights the different stages the three are at in their lives. She acknowledges that her future reaches out before her. A closer reflection on her character entertains the conversation that youth and adolescence is an emotionally fertile period for personal growth. Sam represents the wonder of wisdom and maturity that grows where we least expect it. Donaldson’s film critiques the naïve idea that wisdom comes with age. Instead, it comes through experience, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and, importantly, we must be open to personal growth.

Good One is a finely judged and deceptively simple drama. How Donaldson coalesces the story around two sentences or ideas, maturity and the future becoming untethered, lending it meaning, purpose and identity is impressive. The importance of seeing things from someone else’s point of view should be kept in mind. It’s a thought that cannot be separated from the two aforementioned ideas.

Sadly, for Sam, like empathy or kindness not being reciprocated, she’s left hurt when her wisdom and maturity aren’t. Like Steinbeck’s prose, the change in Sam’s relationships is like the little wind and a stealthy perfume. Sam has either come untethered on this trip, or it’s the end of the beginning of a significant change. The character and the audience sense this under Donaldson’s deft direction.

In hindsight, Good One continues to reveal little details. It deepens our understanding and appreciation for a film that leans into gender distinctions but goes beyond them to offer an incisive and observant critique of human nature. Good One might not have the strength of presence to assert itself among other notable or louder films, but it’s a near-perfect film. It should be regarded as among the finest examples of independent cinema. Fittingly, its shyness conveys the spirit of its adolescent protagonist, as character and story walk hand-in-hand towards their untidy future. 

Good One screened in the US Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and has been acquired for US distribution by Metrograph Pictures. 

RATING 9 / 10