Film festivals are so often about buzzed-up titles, either the ones discovered during or scooped up by buyers before the festivals’ run dates, that humbler titles wanting for the same advantages are drowned out in the PR rumpus. Only the Good Survive, Dutch Southern’s debut feature, is one of those movies, contained by a smaller scale but no less remarkable than the big-ticket hype beasts over-pampered by the spotlight. Naturally, it will go overlooked. This is a crime.
But not as much of a crime as the one Southern unspools from the movie’s first frames to its last. It’s wise to keep perspective — perspective, after all, is central to Only the Good Survive, which opens on an animated sequence where images bleed into each other and understanding of a kind is provided in voiceover by Brea (Sidney Flanigan), who we meet sitting on the wrong side of the table in an interrogation room once her candy-coated reverie is interrupted by Sheriff Cole Mack (Frederick Weller). More than once, Mack reminds Brea that she isn’t under arrest, and that she doesn’t have a file; he just wants to understand what happened at the remote farmhouse she and her friends tried to rob, and what happened after they fled the place.
Talking about the “what” is tricky. Only the Good Survive, like several other terrific movies similarly doomed to neglect in SXSW’s film programming, is best watched cold, with the barest sense of what it is based on a trim logline. The facts are straightforward: We know Brea, her boyfriend Ry (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Ry’s buddy Erve (Will Ropp), and Erve’s acquaintance Dev (Darious Fraser) broke into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Henderson (Pat Turner and Carol Hickey) looking for rare, valuable coins. We know they found something else, we know they ran like hell with the “something else,” and we know that the boys didn’t make it. Remember: Only the good survive.
We don’t know much else, and neither does Cole. He’s the film’s audience identification character, an unctuous, condescending lawman whose intentions seem good and true; he wants to know what happened to Brea, Ry, Erve, and Dev, and he thinks Brea isn’t telling him everything that went down at the Hendersons’.
But Southern embeds Only the Good Survive squarely in Brea’s point of view, the source of the movie’s animated elements. Scenes cut between Mack interviewing Brea, and the events he’s interviewing her about: how she met Ry, how Ry met Erve, how Ry found the Hendersons’ coins in the first place, how Erve came up with the heist and roped in Dev as their muscle, and how all their designs brought them into conflict with a dangerous cult. (The “cult” note isn’t exactly spoilery, it’s mentioned in the synopsis.) Everything about the cult, particularly the question of whether the cult even exists, is best discovered by the viewer.
Southern is a bit of a rascal. He playfully teases out Only the Good Survive’s reveals with the kind of kinetic snap-bang editing and camera movements typically associated with Edgar Wright movies, a fusion of Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World with films like The Long Night, Satan’s Slave, and Satanic Panic. Making the leap that Wright counts among his influences seems fair, but there’s a bit of Aaron and Adam Nee’s 2014 Tom Sawyer riff Band of Robbers in his work, too, plus a dose of Joseph Kahn and Adi Shankar; Southern co-wrote a “gritty reimagining” Power Rangers short back in 2015, along with Kahn and James Van Der Beek, and that project’s roguish energy finds its way into Only the Good Survive’s framework.
The film spurns authority. Nobody in charge of anything here is to be trusted. When the narrative wraps, we get to see how Southern validates our distrust and paranoia, the unshakable sensation that the only people worth putting faith in are Brea and the gang. Even then, Erve and Dev aren’t totally forthcoming about their personal details. We hear about them from Mack. Brea’s in the dark with us. But she’s canny, and she might have secrets of her own, too, and that’s core to Only the Good Survive’s rebellious spirit.
Southern orchestrates his broader plot — the failed heist, the chase, the cat and mouse games with the cult, the occasional ritualistic stabbing and beheading — as a ride through American backcountry and boonies, where youth is cursed to wither in the grip of a repressed cultural desert. But the film’s best segments involve only Flanigan and Weller bouncing off of each other in a single space, with no other cast members around to consider.
Flanigan made an impression in Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, her first lead role. Put lightly, Only the Good Survive is a departure in the tone department. But she brings the same gravity to Brea all the same, and still has a hoot sparring with Weller, who in turn oozes Mack’s oily pleasure at stumping Brea with pop culture references from before her time while withholding from her the full extent of what he knows. Southern makes his biggest flexes as a director in these moments, demonstrating that the “most” direction isn’t always the “best,” and that the most essential tool of the filmmaker’s trade is a good eye for camera placement.
Granted, the fundamentals of Southern’s filmmaking will likely come second in most viewers’ appreciation of his puckish sense of humor and zippy pacing. Only the Good Survive stands beside other offerings in SXSW’s lineup — Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline comes immediately to mind — as expressions of disgruntled youth; in Southern’s film, age lines shape the conflict between his antagonists and protagonists. The incumbent generation exploits the succeeding generation, because why let go of ruling class perks when you can extend your hegemony by preying on them? Only the Good Survive takes the message seriously. But it doesn’t take itself seriously, and that’s how Southern keeps the story fresh — even new.