March 25, 2023

My favorite doc of SXSW this year was Penny Lane’s “Confessions of a Good Samaritan,” a fascinating dissection of altruism, empathy, and personal exploration. Lane doesn’t make traditional documentaries, but she’s never thrown herself into one as she does here. I’m generally not fond of filmmakers who become the subject of their movie, but I’ll make an exception when it involves said director literally giving part of their body to the production.

Lane decides she wants to become an altruistic donor, a small group of people who decide to donate body parts, usually a kidney, to a complete stranger. The vast majority of life-saving organ donations come from relatives and loved ones, but the need far outweighs the supply of viable donors. If everyone walking around with an “extra” kidney gave one away? There would be no more need for kidneys. Lane decides not only to donate a kidney but to explore the very concept of altruism, and she ends up in some very unexpected places.

Without spoiling anything, “Confessions of a Good Samaritan” doesn’t only play out like an encouragement for us all to try to make a better world. If more people even thought about their fellow man as much as Lane does, we’d all be in a better place. But Lane discovers that life isn’t that simple. Altruism is complicated, and that gets even thornier when making a movie about it. Lane starts to question not only why she’s giving up part of her body but dragging a camera crew through the process. It helps that she’s a wonderfully forthcoming subject who allows us to go with her on this vulnerable journey that reshapes how she looks at the world. It could do the same for you.

Mr. William Shatner is also someone who uniquely looks at the world. He’s the subject of “You Can Call Me Bill,” the latest from the ambitious documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe (“78/52,” “The People vs. George Lucas”). Loyal readers know that bio-docs are my Kryptonite, but Philippe avoids the talking-head, chronological structure that drains my soul in two ways. First, he employs a more thematic construct, moving back and forth in time as the film raises different ideas instead of just employing a simple “then this happened” structure. Second, he lets Shatner tell his own story. There are no colleagues, fans, or experts. Just Bill. And he has a LOT to say.

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