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Sundance 2024: Growing Pains In India Donaldson's Good One

Good One sets up a tense yet delicately-modelled tableau to depict the 'uncomfortable truths of teenage girlhood'.

Sundance 2024: Growing Pains In India Donaldson's Good One
Lily Collias in Good One. Courtesy Sundance Film Festival

Last Updated: 04.52 PM, Feb 06, 2024


This review is part of our critics' round-up of six of the best titles at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.


ABOUT AN HOUR into India Donaldson’s debut feature Good One, a boundary is crossed with a single line. The line is a loaded request, delivered facetiously and oh-so-casually during a late-night campfire chat, only so it can be easily dismissed as a joke if brought up later and held up to scrutiny. But there is no ambiguity about the meaning and untowardness of the request. For 17-year-old Sam (Lily Collias), this single line and its fallout — or lack thereof — come as a rude awakening. Before she is off to college, Sam has joined her father Chris (James Le Gros) and his long-time friend Matt (Danny McCarthy) on a backpacking trail in the Catskills. Though a sinking feeling lingers for most of the trip and the film has been building up to the aforementioned line, it still comes as a shock.

Clear-sighted and wise beyond her years though Sam may be, the greater shock comes when her own dad brushes aside the incident. Earlier, she had watched this same man make a show of paternal ire, admonishing Matt for putting her in danger by eating snacks in his tent with bears in the vicinity. Now, when she really needs his support, this same man lets her down by invalidating her feelings of discomfort. The weight of the words bears down on Sam, like rocks at the bottom of a bag. But she can’t even get her father to share the burden. Justifiably, she feels betrayed. A revelatory Collias nails the quiet devastation of a teenage girl forced to overlook the failings of grown-ups. Her watchful eyes barely conceal the turmoil seething inside her.

On a trip with older men in a film full of silences, it’s when she speaks up that she feels the loneliest, an eye-opener on the disconnect between a daughter and a father, a young woman and an adult man. Not only does the experience unsettle the way she sees her father and his friend, it also puts a whole new complexion on grown-ups for someone soon entering adulthood herself. It is more than likely (that) the splintering incident and subsequent inertia will inform how she interacts with men henceforth.

India Donaldson (left) and Lily Collias at the premiere of Good One at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/Shutterstock
India Donaldson (left) and Lily Collias at the premiere of Good One at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/Shutterstock

Framing her rude awakening against green trees and cascading streams lends a calm intensity to a 90-minute drama of small interactions. The forest, as a setting away from the demands of everyday life, brings people and all their messy contradictions into clear focus. Donaldson situates Sam in an open terrain to explore how it feels to be a young woman learning to navigate a world of men and assert her boundaries. It is rare to find a film, so rich in detail, if not incident, staged with such sensitivity and discipline.

Originally, the trip to the Catskills had been planned as a trip for four — until Matt’s teenage son Dylan (Julian Grady) drops out at the last minute, angry about his parents’ separation. Sam offers to help change Dylan’s mind, only to be shot down by a crabby Matt. That leaves her in the awkward role of a buffer for two old men brooding over failed marriages, unfulfilled dreams and midlife regrets. For three days and three nights. Since divorcing Sam’s mom, Chris has gone on to marry a woman in her 20s. Sam crystal-balls half-seriously, half-jokingly that Matt may very well end up doing the same.

There is discernible tension between the two old friends. Chris is a super-organised backpacker; Matt not so much. For starters, he wears jeans on a hike and forgets to bring his sleeping bag. As the trio trek through scenic terrain, Chris and Matt bicker and clash over petty matters, while Sam observes and listens in silence. She interposes only when required or called upon. In case she hits the nail on the head when asked for input, they make sure to discount it. Collias invests Sam with a mediating intelligence but also a trusting innocence. With a rolling of the eyes, a half-smile and a non-response, she is able to convey the constant push-pull of an adolescent trying to reconcile her inner life with the outer world.

From left to right - Danny McCarthy, Lily Collias, and James Le Gros attend the Good One premiere. Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival
From left to right - Danny McCarthy, Lily Collias, and James Le Gros attend the Good One premiere. Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival

Chris and Sam are not going hiking for the first time. We get the impression hiking is something of a father-daughter tradition. Yet, it is Sam who often feels like a third wheel throughout the journey. Her position always feels secondary to the men. Right at the get-go, on the drive to the mountains, Chris asks Sam to move to the backseat so Matt can sit in the front. She is peeved but doesn’t protest. While the two friends chat away, she chimes in with the odd remark between texts to girlfriend Jessie.

Upon checking into a motel, it is Sam who sleeps on the floor so the men can take the twin beds. Come mealtime, it is Sam who cooks up a pot of ramen for everyone and then cleans up. The men are quick to praise the ramen. But their reluctance to help in any way communicates a feeling of entitlement to women’s labour. If Sam gets cast in traditional gender roles of peacemaker and caregiver, as the look of discomfort on her face says, it isn’t necessarily out of choice. It’s because even cool hiking dads like Chris are content to thrust these roles upon their daughters.

One evening, a trio of young male hikers set up camp at the same site as Sam, Chris and Matt. All the men geek out and bond over hiking goals without so much as acknowledging Sam or what she might have to say, as if she were invisible. Chris and Matt even remain oblivious to the fact that Sam is on her period. Every now and again, she sneaks away to change her tampons behind a tree. To be the proverbial “good one” is to constantly accommodate, compromise, tolerate. For Sam, the expectations that come with her emotional maturity leave her settling for less than she deserves. But as she learns by the end of a three-day hike, setting boundaries is about protecting one’s personal space and sense of self. 

Good One had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2024 as part of its US Dramatic Competition section.

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