As teenagers go — and let us allow for some hormonal leeway here — 17-year-old Sam is what most would call a good one: smart, thoughtful, grounded, self-sufficient but not averse to advice, the kind of kid that parents can’t help bragging about, as their friends wish their own nightmare offspring were a little more like her. But such a reputation has its downside, as elders take the teen’s compliance and good humor for granted, and expect undue allowances for their own irresponsibilities. Writer-director India Donaldson probes that awkward reversal of roles with delicacy and care in her debut feature “Good One,” monitoring the white lies and red flags that emerge over the course of a father-daughter camping weekend in upstate New York.
Premiering in the U.S. Dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance festival, “Good One” is modest but assuredly perceptive independent filmmaking that makes no grand claims for itself over a slim 89-minute runtime. Instead, the film invites viewers to look closer, to identify consequential fault lines and points of identification in what might outwardly seem a low-stakes narrative. Perhaps it’s accidental that Donaldson’s premise recalls Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 miniature “Old Joy” as if replayed two decades on — with a new, nearly adult interloper muddling the once-comfy dynamic between two middle-aged friends on a woodsy retreat. But there’s certainly some resemblance here to the quiet, subtext-led simmer of Reichardt’s filmmaking, in which throwaway lines and actions acquire unspoken weight as hours, and then days, and perhaps even years, go by.
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But that’s getting ahead of the film and its tight three-day timeframe — a mere snapshot of longstanding relationships, but long enough to discern tensions that have been brewing, and affections that have been shifting, for quite some time. Fiftysomething contractor Chris (James Le Gros) appears to be on great terms with Sam (Lily Collias), his only child, who takes his dad jokes and occasionally clumsy lines of personal questioning with good grace; he’s a sincerely loving and interested parent, and has evidently accepted her out-and-proud queerness without difficulty. There may be flickers of pique on her part stemming from her parents’ divorce and Chris’s blameful role therein, but by and large, she’s matured and let go of youthful resentments.
College beckons, and with it independent adulthood. The Catskills camping trip Chris and Sam are planning might just be the latest in a long family tradition of them, but there’s an air of finality to this one — a sense that their roles won’t be quite the same going forward. They’re not going alone: Chris’s oldest friend Matt (Danny McCarthy) is to join them, along with his own teenage son, though their relationship is rockier than that between Chris and Sam. At the last minute, the surly lad drops out, leaving Matt — a disheveled former actor with none of his pal’s outdoorsy skills — an ungainly third wheel on this poignant father-daughter trip.
Sam doesn’t mind — it’s her nature not to. But there’s a growing sense of imbalance to the way these two bluff older men converse with this quiet young woman, often using her as a sounding board for their middle-aged grievances and self-pity, and praising her for her perspicacious responses in a way that feels both condescending and a little conditional. Sam is permitted, to a point, to be jovially critical of their blundering masculinity, but on their terms only: She’s either blanked or cautioned when she gets too candid for their liking.
As the trio pick their way across rocks and rivers, their chatter rambles smoothly and cheerfully enough that you don’t initially notice how one-sided it is: A full day passes before anyone asks Sam anything meaningful about herself. And when, one night by the campfire, a jokey exchange between Sam and Matt veers discomfitingly over the line, it soon becomes clear that, despite Chris’s own growing irritation with his friend, she’s one against two — and once again expected to be the younger-but-bigger person in the face of her elders’ flaws. Donaldson’s keen-eared script deftly avoids the head-on confrontations that can be so much easier to initiate in the movies than in life, as the characters instead test and admonish each other via passive-aggressive gestures and politely loaded observations.
First seen two years ago in a secondary role in “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” Collias impresses in a role that doesn’t grant her any great extremes of expression. Sam’s temperate demeanor may simply be her nature, but Collias’s tautly wired performance shows how it’s also a defense; Wilson Cameron’s camera gazes at her long enough in soft, sun-dappled closeup that we eventually see the clenched muscles behind the calm. A superb Le Gros mirrors her composure while also enjoying the luxury of outward-facing, alpha-male surges of anger and irritation; McCarthy offers a louder slacker loucheness that gradually creates more tension than it breaks.
The friction between these three conflicting energies builds to a climax that some viewers might find unduly low-key — an open-ended impasse perhaps more characteristic of short film structure — but that also feels true to the characters and their ongoing lives. It takes more than a weekend for a “good one” to assert their more demanding complications, but Donaldson’s sly, watchful debut brings Sam to the brink of something — not just adulthood, but a revised view of her childhood, a realization more seismic than any shouting match.
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