Not even two rich performances from Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman can salvage the tonally uneven A Good Person. There is a good movie somewhere in writer-director Zach Braff’s latest work, but the film undermines its better moments concerning devastating grief and drug addiction with an overly-long script and one-liners that would play better in a cringe comedy rather than this self-billed drama.
It is difficult to talk about the film without spoiling the opening moments. A Good Person begins with Pugh as Allison, hosting a party with her fiancé Nathan (Chinaza Uche). A fatal car accident leads to the end of their relationship, and Allison’s physical pain in the wake of the crash turns into guilt and self-loathing. She becomes addicted to oxycontin. At the same time, Nathan’s father, Daniel (Freeman), is struggling to raise his granddaughter, Ryan (Celeste O’Connor). A recovering alcoholic, the stresses of caring for a grieving teenager lead him closer to the bottle. He crosses paths again with Allison at a group meeting, and while her guilt-fueled instinct is to run, Daniel convinces her to stay, leading the two to begin a friendship of their own.
At its best moments, A Good Person is a compelling meditation on finding community and companionship in the face of grief and how finding one’s place in the world often comes while in the service of others. Allison is lost. She lives at home with her mother, Diane (Molly Shannon), who tries her best to help Allison but often comes up short. She needs a guiding light, someone who understands addiction and can help her through the pain, and she finds that in Daniel. He benefits from the relationship too, and with Allison’s help, he finds ways of communicating not only with Ryan but also with Nathan, with whom, we learn, he barely speaks.
Pugh brings a characteristically strong performance to the film. What Allison experiences comes through the screen in a few devastatingly visceral moments, and we feel too well the limbo in which she finds herself seeing the life she could have lived while being stuck at home with her mother, alone. To the film’s detriment, such scenes are surrounded by cliché and mindless humor. One scene in which Allison stops by a local bar and runs into two men she knew in high school comes to mind. She tries to buy drugs from them and ends up reliving her high school past and using with them in the street. Everything about the scene feels off. It plays like a bad comedy and thus feels all the more exploitative when juxtaposed with the film’s more serious contemplation of addiction.
That the film has its good scenes make it all the more frustrating. It seems as if Braff cannot totally commit to his film’s best, more sincere moments. He is like a plate spinner who keeps adding more and more to the act without realizing that we are already entertained. Eventually, it all comes crashing down. A Good Person‘s end, for example, is one such plate. Realism, to which the film compellingly commits throughout most of the story, goes by the wayside. Without spoiling, Freeman as Daniel takes on a role reminiscent of a low-budget action film. He takes a swig of whiskey and pulls a gun from a drawer. A moment meant to bring to the surface the character’s violent past instead plays as a cheap thrill.
Braff wrote the film after the deaths of his sister, father, and one of his best friends. He clearly has much to say about grief, loss, and how to move forward. And much of it translates well throughout the film. The aforementioned tonal disparities, though, are what makes the film feel all the more uneven and, at times, difficult to watch. It may be that Braff felt the need to move beyond the template for addiction-recovery films. If that is the case, it is a noble cause, but, as tiresome as templates can be, they exist for a reason. Sometimes, it is best to play within one rather than, as this film does, leave too little on the editing room floor.
Those who watch A Good Person will find much to appreciate in the performances given by Pugh and Freeman. Obviously, both actors bring their signature styles to the screen, but they’re at their best when together. The friendship revolves around forgiveness. Allison heals, in part, because of it. And she helps Daniel learn to forgive himself and earn the forgiveness of those he hurt. These are quiet moments, evocative of the film’s gentle title. It is when the film drifts in other directions that it ultimately undermines itself. That people heal and change and find happiness can and should be enough.
A Good Person debuts in theaters on March 24, 2023.