Heartfelt and honest, albeit scattered in places and increasingly strained down the stretch, writer-director Zach Braff’s A Good Person is an effectively familiar look at the dark point where addiction and grief intersect. While there isn’t a lot in the Garden State filmmaker’s personally resonant latest that hasn’t been broached in dozens of melodramas that came before it, and the third acts leaves a bit to be desired, A Good Person succeeds more than it misses by handling its subjects and well rounded characters with dignity and grace. While it might not drive everyone who sees it to tears, there’s no denying that A Good Person has been made with plenty of heart, empathy, personal investment.
Florence Pugh stars as Allison, a pharmaceutical sales rep on the verge of marrying the man of her dreams, Nathan (Chinaza Uche). But en route to getting her wedding dress, Allison gets into a fatal accident along the New Jersey turnpike that takes the life of her passengers: Nathan’s sister and her husband. One year removed from the accident, Allison is an oxycontin addicted, clinically depressed shell of her former self. She has broken up with Nathan. She hasn’t found a new job and has moved in with her demanding, equally depressed mother (Molly Shannon). Allison is about to hit rock bottom in her quest to find her next fix, but is pulled out of her tailspin when she goes to an AA meeting and runs across Daniel (Morgan Freeman), Nathan’s estranged father. Although Daniel has long blamed Allison for the death of his daughter, he still seems glad that she’s getting help. In turn for helping her get clean, Daniel asks Allison for advice on how to deal with his teenage granddaughter, Ryan (Celeste O’Connor), who has become more sullen and despondent since the death of her mom.
The first two thirds of A Good Person showcases the best work of Braff’s career behind the camera. Although there’s an indie rock soundtrack that feels in line with some of Braff’s earlier films and dalliances in television, everything else about A Good Person bears the hallmarks of a more mature and assured filmmaker. There’s humour, but no quirkiness. There’s sadness, but it’s always mixed with other emotions like rage, confusion, and most notably, grief. Instead of trying to make Allison and Daniel appear like two people going through something similar, Braff makes the astute decision to depict grief and addiction as two things that are never experienced in the exact same way by people. There’s plenty of hurting to be found in A Good Person, but no one experiences it in the same way, leading to communication breakdowns, emotional outbursts, and misunderstandings that feel authentic and organic. While the overwhelming emotion throughout is sadness and struggle, it’s refreshing to see a film where people are going through something deeply profound and debilitating in their own individual ways.
For the most part, this confluence of experiences is what makes A Good Person so engaging and thoughtful. No one relates to each other perfectly, but they always have a sense of the struggle someone else is going through, even when they’re angry with that other person. And for the most part, Braff’s rounded approach works well, until the unfortunate third act where it loses the thread. Towards the end, motivations for some of the characters start turning either confused or outright contradictory. Things start to make less sense in favour of sending things out on a grand dramatic note that never fully lands or satisfies, almost as if all of the rougher, more fruitful edges from earlier in the film have been suddenly sanded off in favour of something closer to a more modern, audience friendly melodrama. (I wouldn’t blink an eye if you were to tell me a majority of the third act was the result of reshoots or test audience reactions.) The final act doesn’t sink A Good Person, but it certainly drags the overall quality down considerably.
Having its heart and mind in the right place certainly helps save A Good Person from total collapse, but it’s the performances that keep it from being a well intentioned misfire. Pugh’s work as an addict struggling to reclaim their independence and humanity is electrifying; another feather in her cap full of memorable performances. Freeman gives his best performance since Million Dollar Baby as an aging man keenly in touch with his inner demons, yet clouded by tragedy and stress. O’Connor makes a big impression as teenaged Ryan, the always underrated Shannon gets another meaty dramatic role that she knocks out of the park, Zoe Lister-Jones has a memorable, but pivotal role as an AA sponsor, and Alex Wolff has an even smaller, but exceptional turn as a local barfly Allison tries to score from. The talent on display in A Good Person is abundant, and Braff doesn’t squander the chance to showcase these performers at their best.
It’s far from perfect, and much of Braff’s look at addiction has been done already (with Freeman even hearkening back to his small role in Clean and Sober, here), but it’s still purposeful and respectful to the experiences of addicts and those caught in their depressing orbit. Similarly, everything on display here about grief and forgiveness isn’t anything groundbreaking. But A Good Person works because it’s simply presenting people as the messes they are, for better and for worse, without being condescending or judgmental. It’s a sad film (albeit one with a handful of good, sometimes dark laughs), but also strangely likeable. There’s probably a better way to make this same story land better by the end, but on the whole, A Good Person is rather refreshing in its approach.
A Good Person opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, March 24, 2023.
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