Every so often, a gift of genre mashups lands in our laps. This SXSW, that film is Only the Good Survive, which quickly draws you into the intriguing premise. A mix between hard boiled crime, Scott Pilgrim ADHD energy, and a caper gone wrong, Only the Good Survive is a triumph of vision. Director Dutch Southern could be one of our more absurdist filmmakers in a long time.

A young woman named Bree Dunlee (Sidney Flanigan) runs screaming from the woods. When in police custody, she recounts her horrific night to the local sheriff (Fredrick Weller). Her three friends Ry (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Erve (Will Ropp), and Dev (Darius Fraser) are dead. Did a heist go wrong? Or is something more sinister afoot?

Southern immediately won me over with the full-tilt jittery dialogue. The screenplay is seemingly straight out of a Ross Thomas novel, chewing through references and hilarious banter at record speed. The rat-a-tat dialogue feels rhythmic at times, but Southern keeps us on our toes by poignantly disrupting the flow. As he introduces a staccato feeling, he forces us to dig deeper into the specific word choices and even the sentence structure.

Flanigan and Weller are more than game for the back-and-forth. They each show a deft handle of the screenplay and could easily find themselves on Aaron Sorkin’s radar the next time he makes a film. Yet, Southern introduces another dialogue speed when in scenes with Woon-A-Tai, Ropp, and Fraser. The three of them slow down the dialogue but help the film put on its caper jacket.

Southern’s influence comes from many places, but visually it appears to pop straight out of an Edgar Wright film. There’s a lot of Scott Pilgrim DNA in Only the Good Survive, and it’s better for it. The use of color, immaculately designed visuals, and production design scream attention to detail. Yet there are also ties to The Usual Suspects, Guy Ritchie, and the Coen Brothers.

Speaking of the production design, the masterful world built for Only the Good Survive helps transport us to a dreamlike world. This displacement adds to the overall effectiveness of the film. Everything feels heightened, and as Bree tells the story to the sheriff, it feels even more unbelievable.

Flanigan brings her oddity from Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but this time uses it for comedic purposes. For an actress to show this much range between two features proves that she should be on every casting list in the future. Some wondered if Flanigan was simply coached into the performance from her debut. Those rumors should be firmly put to bed here.

Meanwhile, the three boys (Woon-A-Tai, Ropp, & Fraser) not only play into the oddball nature of their characters but layer in their subtext. As perspectives shift, the subtext falls away, and they each get to play cartoonish versions of the characters we’ve come to know. They each show an ability to play subtle or huge. In each case, they commit to Southern’s vision of absurdity or chaos.

Still, Southern does fall into saccharine traps at times that seemingly conflict with the rest of the film. They do not derail us, but this tone does not seem to mesh well with the heightened reality. Perahps some smoother transitions between these tones would help ingratiate them more into the palette of the film. Doing so will put Southern into a class of directors that craft true masterpieces.

A brilliant ensemble brought together by Southern’s vision, Only the Good Survive is an absolute blast. Taking on a well-picked-over genre, and finding a new take is difficult in the best of circumstances. Yet Only the Good Survive is one of the most unique films of 2023.

Alan’s Rating: 9/10

What do you think of Only the Good Survive? Let us know in the comments below! Catch Only the Good Survive at SXSW 2023!

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