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(Austin Texas’ South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival runs March 10-19. Stay tuned to Hammer to Nail for our usual great coverage like this movie review of Confessions of a Good Samaritan. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

Personal documentaries often succeed or fail based on how we react to the filmmaker’s onscreen presence. In Confessions of a Good Samaritan, director Penny Lane (Hail Satan?) puts her engaging self front and center for the first time, using her recent experience as an altruistic kidney donor to explore topics of medicine and morality in a playful cinematic arrangement. Without waxing pedantic, Lane examines the how and why of her actions (and those of others who have come before), both to tell a compelling story and to challenge the viewer to at least contemplate doing the same.

To take us on a facsimile of her own journey through prep and surgery, Lane occasionally opts for something akin to the screenlife format of recent movies like Missing and Searching. We watch her digital diary unfold, complete with flashback videos and more, including behind-the-scenes footage of the setup for her own interviews. The result is a bracingly intimate look at one person performing an extraordinary act.

For who among us would be so keen to give up part of our body to help a total stranger? Sure, it’s one thing to offer an organ to a relative or loved one, but to someone you don’t even know? According to a statistic we learn here, such donations—called, variously, “altruistic,” “Good Samaritan,” or “non-directed”—are very rare, making up only about 2% of all total organ gifts. We’re only talking about kidneys, of course, because most humans are blessed with two good ones yet only need one. So why not give up the extra to save a life? That, indeed, is the question.

If 1 in 10,000 Americans donated a kidney, we could end a waitlist filled with desperate people (another statistic from within the movie). Better yet, apparently kidneys from living donors are better than from someone deceased. So step right up, folks, and get in line. Not so fast, right? (I know I am not eager to volunteer). It’s a bold undertaking, for sure.

Lane populates Confessions of a Good Samaritan with charming subjects, herself included, who explain the science and make persuasive arguments for the act of sacrifice. Dr. Keith Melancon of George Washington University walks us through the history of transplant surgery, all the while urging everyone to come forward and do the right thing. Dr. Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University reveals how the size of one’s amygdala determines personality. Smaller ones cause psychopathy, while larger ones lead to much greater empathy and altruism; most of us are in between the two polarities. Finally, bioethicist Jacob Appel covers the challenges of law, medicine and morality as they apply to the should-I-should-I-not dilemma of donation.

All the while, Lane’s own surgery looms. This is not fiction; she is doing the deed. And not for the sake of the movie. Rather, the movie is being made because she is giving up a kidney. The stakes are high, and so are the rewards. It’s a remarkable film.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2023 SXSW Film Festival; Penny Lane; Confessions of a Good Samaritan documentary movie review

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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