SXSW 2023 Review: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished in “Confessions of a Good Samaritan”

The most grandiosely cinematic scene of Penny Lane’s career thus far happens about an hour into “Confessions of a Good Samaritan” with the filmmaker in front of the camera rather than behind it, emerging from a bathtub as if she were a soon-to-be victim in a horror film in the jump scare before the killer actually lays hands on her. It isn’t Freddy Krueger who is waiting for her, but rather her computer, slightly absurdly sitting above the tub waiting for her to check her messages where there’s a notice that she must give a medical proxy in case something goes awry during her upcoming surgery, a kidney donation that she’d like to think is entirely altruistic. The fact that Lane admits to herself that there’s no one she would actually trust to give that authority to someone is driving her mad, and that there’s a performed quality to the scene implies another fear that even if she’s not doing this to make herself appear good to anyone else, she wants to feel like the person she wants to be rather than who she really is.

Presentation has been at the heart of a number of Lane’s films, most provocatively in “The Pain of Others,” where she stitched together clips of sufferers of Morgellons Disease, an affliction that’s thought to be made up, deepening the wound for those who think they have it when spending their time convincing others of it, and “Nuts!” in which a biography of conman John Romulus Brinkley had the effect of being taken in by a schemer as you fell in love with the story while starting to overlook its scabrous subject. “Confessions of Good Samaritan” feels a bit like the love child of both as it’s deeply uncomfortable at times like the former and warps perception like the latter, greatly aided by Caroline Eyck’s shrewd score which moves from angelic voices to anxious Carpenter-esque synth as Lane prepares to go under the knife. Vacillating between at least a little backpatting as she wonders why more don’t want to be a little more selfless when so many could be saved and the creeping fear of the surgery itself, Lane opens herself up to scrutiny in a way that’s as vulnerable emotionally as what she’ll experience physically in considering whether her reasons for giving are purely for someone else’s benefit and why acts of charity are questioned by some and completely unquestioned by others.

The idea that something can be simple and extremely complicated to different people is cleverly embedded into the fabric of the film, playing quite engagingly as a straightforward doc about kidney transplants, complete with expert talking head interviews and Lane gently taking viewers by the hand with her charming personal testimony. But the more skeptical will find what they’re looking for when you can take an early scene of her being directed on how to water the plants in her apartment as a clue to tailoring her appearance and the increasing anxiety in her voice leads to an entirely different interpretation. That she could be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons or vice versa is a mighty curious question and regardless of the answer, the truth emerges for anyone contemplating their own potential good deed that it’s only bound to amplify the person you were entering the operating room, a deeply rewarding result that makes the means of getting there irrelevant, much like how the grateful recipient of the kidney will feel once it saves their life.

“Confessions of a Good Samaritan” will screen at SXSW on March 11th at 11 am at the AFS Cinema, March 15th at 12:30 pm at the Violet Crown Cinema 1 and 1 pm at Violet Crown Cinema 3.

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