Dutch Southern’s Only The Good Survive is a confident and creative directorial debut that, whilst a bit messy, never stops being a good time.
I remember when I was a young teenager, obsessed with the idea of making movies. Throughout my time at high school, I must have come up with at least fifty different ideas for potential films I could make, using whatever friends I had at the time and inspired by whatever filmmakers I was binging the filmography of. Only The Good Survive, the directorial debut of writer Dutch Southern, feels like the exact kind of film I would have conjured in my mind back then. Everything about it, from the vibrant, colourful sets to the overly ambitious narrative that only uses a small handful of characters, feels ripped straight out of the dreams of a young, aspiring filmmaker.
Only The Good Survive follows Brea (Sidney Flanigan), who finds herself in the custody of a small-town sheriff (Frederick Weller) after a heist gone wrong. The rest of the film then takes place over a series of flashbacks, with Brea telling the sheriff the story of the heist, as he picks apart every detail and both of their secrets are slowly unravelled. As the story unfolds, we learn that the attempted heist went further and further off the rails, with everything from cultists, kidnapped babies to even crazy old people all getting involved.
Easily the film’s biggest strength is the sheer amount of confidence that Dutch Southern exudes from behind the camera. Almost every five seconds, he makes a bold creative choice that nine times out of ten works really well. Visually, it’s an absolute delight. The use of colour in particular is excellent, with the sets and costumes all being bright and eye-catching, filling every shot with lots of energy. Combine that with the constantly creative editing and rapid-fire pace and the 92-minute runtime flies by, an absolute feast for the eyeballs. Almost every moment contains its own creative flair. Even the transitions between the scenes in the prison and the flashbacks are full of personality, being done through crude, messy animation. It’s touches like this that make the film a real treat.
I adored Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), so seeing her again here was great. She gets to be a little more unhinged in this performance, especially during the climax, and for the most part, she does a fantastic job. In particular, her comedic chemistry with Weller’s sheriff was an easy highlight of the film for me. Their scenes are full of quick, witty dialogue and both actors deliver the lines flawlessly. Weller’s delivery in particular is so dry and monotone at points that it turns even the simplest joke into a genuine laugh-out-loud moment. The rest of the ensemble are equally great, with Darius Fraser’s Dev Watts being my personal favourite. His comedic talent is obvious, getting a lot of laughs out of me simply from just his facial expressions.
However, the film is definitely not without its flaws. Namely, the film’s overarching narrative, especially when you factor in the lies and secrets that are constantly revealed, becomes more and more messy and hard to follow as it goes on. Now, it does feel like that’s sort of the point, and it’s seemingly meant to not make much sense, especially at first, but I was very lost at multiple points. By the end, I’d almost completely given up following it and was just enjoying whatever crazy things were happening in front of me. It was still incredibly enjoyable, thanks to Southern’s outstanding direction, but I was no longer particularly emotionally engaged to it because, especially in the third act, the characters and their goals flip-flop all around the place.
There’s an attempt at the end to give the characters a secret motivation for why they were committing this crime. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t land for me because it never once feels like an actual mystery that the audience can solve. Perhaps this would change on a second viewing, but the film never once gave any hints that this would be how it all ended. It’s hardly an unexpected outcome, but it would have been nice for a film that’s centred around mysteries and secrets to actually contain some genuine foreshadowing and build towards its final twist. As it is, it doesn’t feel satisfying at all, leaving a somewhat bad taste in my mouth when the credits roll.
Then, there’s the actual ending itself, which is so ridiculous that I can’t tell if I absolutely hated it, or secretly really enjoyed it. As of right now, I’m leaning more towards the former, and I’d think I’d prefer it ended just a few minutes earlier, but all of this doesn’t taint an otherwise excellent debut. All in all, Only The Good Survive is an incredibly strong and confident first directorial effort from Southern, full of bold choices and vibrant colours. The writing may need some refining, but I finished the film incredibly excited to see what he does next, and to me, that’s exactly what a debut should do.
Only The Good Survive premiered at SXSW 2023 on March 10-14, 2023. Read our SXSW reviews!