SXSW2023 Review: Confessions of a Good Samaritan

Documentarian Penny Lane wants to be a good person. She’s not sure what that means but she’s working on figuring it out. She finds herself at a good place in her life – financially and emotionally stable, she wants to give back to the world from her abundance. But how does one selflessly give of themselves if they don’t want to take the more traditional routes of say creating a family? Well…why not just donate a kidney? Penny seemingly arrives at this possibility in the most nonchalant way possible, setting her off on a mission to discover why people donate their organs, why more people don’t, and why in the world she even wants to in the first place – discovering along the way that maybe that Jesus guy was onto something after all.

Before we get ahead ourselves, however, this is not a religious film – nor is it a film that arrives at much of an epiphany about religion. The first half of the documentary finds Penny pre-surgery, desperately trying to understand what makes donors better people and why more isn’t being done to incentivize people to perform the moral duty of donating organs to those in need. This is, of course, inarguably, a good thing! She discovers that these types of donations are called many things – anonymous, altruistic, or even Good Samaritan donations. This, however, bristles against her modern sensibilities: “it just makes me uncomfortable. It’s Jesus stuff, or something.”

This attitude forms a fascinating throughline to the whole film that is, sadly, not as robust as one might hope. Towards the beginning, Penny states her opinions on religion with admirable clarity: “God is dead right? So we have to be God. God’s supposed to love all his children equally, God is dead, so we have to do that work.” This is, of course, not a terribly surprising sentiment. An incredible amount of ink has been spilled reflecting on the ways modernity has reduced morality to pure materialist considerations, kicking anything resembling spiritual communion out to the curb with the God who once demanded it. So, what do we do when there’s no longer a God to instruct us? How do we explain the love we owe to our neighbors?

As she marches towards surgery, seemingly stunned by the enthusiasm with which she first agreed to this procedure, Penny contemplates a few different approaches to organ donation. On the one hand, she provides an engaging general history on both the origins of the surgery as well as the movement towards anonymous donation – but, on the other, she attempts to push a purely materialist explanation of morality or motivation towards altruism. The work of Georgetown neuroscientist Dr. Abigail Marsh is undoubtedly fascinating but explaining that some people are just more apt towards self-sacrifice than others simply because they have larger amygdalae feels decidedly lacking. Combined with the section on the work of author Sally Satel who is advocating for a capitalistic solution to encourage people to donate for the sake of financial reward and the viewer is left with the uncomfortable reality that what’s really at fault here is entirely cultural – economically, psychologically, and, above all, spiritually.

For what it is, this documentary is extremely well done. It’s a rewarding challenge to walk alongside Penny as she struggles with her own desire to selflessly serve a stranger. It forces the audience to really dig into the limits of their own altruism and to face the fact that there really are far more healthy kidney’s out there than there are those in need of donors – so why aren’t we solving this seemingly simple problem? Where I find difficulty with the film is in its solutions but that’s hardly Penny’s fault. The film doesn’t reach the same critique I have and I’ll fully admit that it’s an ideological difference – capitalism simply cannot solve this problem. We live in a deeply broken culture who, despite being ostensibly Christian, views morality as it views everything else: transactional. But, as Penny eventually realizes, morality cannot be bought.

The film ends on an applaudable, if incomplete, note. Post-surgery, Penny realizes that her previous assumptions about how “easy” donation should be – to convince people either through statistics or monetary encouragement – are kind of ridiculous. Healing in her home, seemingly coming down from the high of trying to be a good person (to be clear: she is), Penny finds herself researching what the parable of the Good Samaritan even means. In a moment that speaks to America’s complicated identity as a Christian nation, Penny stumbles upon a sermon by the remarkable – and admittedly problematic – preacher Billy Graham. Realizing that she once assumed Samaritan was merely a synonym for saint, Penny comes to find that the parable speaks to exactly what she was hoping to explore – that we owe each other love simply because we’re in this together, that we’re neighbors. While she speaks of the great interconnectedness of nature as a motivating factor in her life, Penny is ultimately unwilling to dig further into the spiritual implications of Graham’s message, balking at the idea of answering the altar call after his sermon. But, again, you can hardly blame her – American Christianity, much like capitalism, cannot solve this issue by treating spirituality as something transactional. Penny wants to learn how to serve others but, like her, hardly any of us actually want to know what it means to become the servant of all.