A GOOD PERSON ½
2023, R, 129 mins.
Florence Pugh as Allison / Morgan Freeman as Daniel / Molly Shannon as Diane / Celeste O'Connor as Ryan / Zoe Lister-Jones as Simone / Chinaza Uche as Nathan / Toby Onwumere as Jesse / Nichelle Hines as Molly / Ignacio Diaz-Silverio as QuinnWritten and directed by Zach Braff
Zach Braff has had a
disappointingly inconsistent career behind the camera, to say the least.
His 2004 cult hit GARDEN STATE was such an auspicious filmmaking debut and one that spoke to me so much that I put it on my list of that year's Ten Best Films. I thought the possibilities were fairly limitless for Braff, but it would take a decade before he would make another film, which came in the form of the very publicly crowdfunded WISH I WERE HERE, which regrettably didn't capture his rookie film's novelty and was a largely missed opportunity. After that came 2017's largely forgettable GOING IN STYLE, which was a mostly workmanlike production that could have been helmed by just about any available director. It was at this point when I seriously began to wonder if Braff was a just one-hit wonder as far as actors-turned-director go. He certainly has solid instincts as a writer and director, but very little that has come out since his glory days of GARDEN STATE has fully capitalized on his obvious talents.
Now comes A GOOD PERSON, which is a wonderful and long awaited return to form for Braff, which tells the story of how one unspeakably cruel tragedy affects multiple lives, often for the worse. In many respects, it's an intimately drawn and darkly amusing tale of how lost souls try - with intermittent levels of success - to cope with past trauma and how they find unique outlets of support in the process. There's a thematic and ambitious storytelling to Braff's fourth film behind the camera, which is complimented highly by two of the best performances of the year by Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman, the latter of whom being given one of his finest roles in many a moon. Braff's film falters a bit when it comes to momentum and pacing, not to mention that some of its third act plot developments seem a tad manipulative and hard to swallow. Having said that, this is a thanklessly well acted and compelling take on some really troublesome subject matter, not to mention that the film pulls off a minor miracle in making some of its deeply unlikeable characters that commit truly heinous actions somehow endearing and worthy of our developing interest.
A GOOD PERSON starts off conventionally in the sense that it introduces us to a happy couple in Allison (Pugh) and Nathan (Chinaza Uche), who are celebrating their recent engagement with friends and family. Everything seems absolutely right and hopeful for this future married couple, but then chance throws their lives a dreadful curveball when - during a routine afternoon of errand running - Allison gets into a horrific car accident (caused by her being distracted momentarily by her cell phone). She lives, albeit with ghastly injuries , but her two other passengers (comprised of her future sister-in-law and her husband) were killed instantly. The dead couple have a teenage daughter, Ryan (GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE's Celeste O'Connor), who is now left a traumatized orphan. In one fleeting moment and a regretful mistake on Allison's part, multiple lives are ruined in the process.
One year passes, and when we hook back up with Allison, she's hit rock bottom so hard that she's barely able to function. Deeply addicted to Oxycontin (among many things), Allison ends her engagement and relationship with Nathan and moves back home with her mother, Diane (a very good Molly Shannon). Ryan herself was taken in by her kindly retired cop grandfather, Daniel (Freeman), who seems pretty ill equipped to raise a teenager in the winter of his life. Driven by her concerned mother, Allison seeks out counseling at an AA meeting, but is shocked when she finds her once future father-in-law Daniel there, who's battling demons of a different kind. When not tackling his own past indiscretions and addictions, Daniel loses himself in his meticulously created train set he made in his basement, which recreates aspects of his life and world that are far more idealized than the real thing. He also has great difficulty processing his deep-seeded anger and resentment towards Allison, whom he's never fully forgiven for taking his own child away from him. However, he seems curiously drawn to Allison's current devastated state and manages to develop a growing empathy for her.
A GOOD PERSON is on rock solid ground when it comes to Braff exploring many of the film's endlessly intriguing character beats, especially when it comes to Daniel himself, who has built his own tiny little world that he can escape into in the form of his utopian train set (the metaphor here could be argued as obvious and heavy handed, but it's rendered sensitively and organically). It's clear that Daniel has omnipotent control over his miniaturized creation, but that level of commanding poise has not translated into his own life as a father and grandfather/guardian. He not only has great difficulty acclimating to a new life tending to Ryan, but he also struggles with his own past with alcoholism and hints that he might have been a dreadful father to Nathan when he was a kid. Allison is in a whole different tailspin of her own, and she's been so grief stricken by what she did - and the long arduous recovery that it entailed - that she never fully healed on a psychological and physical level. She got so addicted to pills in the accident's aftermath that she's a borderline vegetable most days. There are two memorably revealing scenes in A GOOD PERSON that are also, to be fair, squirm inducing to watch. The first has Allison meeting for breakfast an old friend, Becky (Ryann Redmond), who works for big-pharma and becomes completely taken aback when it appears that all Allison wants out of her for is pills under the table. Then there's a truly pathetic and vile scene at a local bar when Allison comes in contact with two drunk losers that she once went to high school with. These cretins see the condition that she's in and subsequently engage in sadistic bullying, taking full advantage of her fragile state. It's a borderline vicious moment, but is acted and written so well that it's hard to shake and overlook.
The film's best moments occur when the painful worlds of Allison and Daniel come to a head when they meet up again for the first time at that aforementioned Church support group. Now, you'd think that Braff's script would go down a browbeaten and obligatory path during their initial re-acquaintance, but instead of Daniel eviscerating the poor woman in public, he takes her to a nearby dinner so they can calmly and rationally (at least as much as they can at this highly awkward moment) lay all of their dirty laundry on the table and try to talk about what happened and what they need to do to move on. There's superb tension in this scene as well as a devastating level of raw honesty when it comes to Braff's shrewd dialogue. Daniel wants to hate this woman, and still hates what she did, but seems inexplicably lured into her own vortex of chemical dependency, mostly because he's been down that road before. In Allison's case, she simply can't find a way to verbalize to him the hurt and regret she has maintained for the accident and understands that nothing she can do will change what happened. In many mutual ways, they're both trying to be better people and atone for past mistakes. Daniel hopes to be a better father figure to Ryan than he ever was to Nathan, but his granddaughter's newfound rebellious nature - and her taking great umbrage with her grandfather getting cozy with the woman that inadvertently killed her mother - deeply complicates things for all.
There's a definitive danger, I think, with the subject matter here that it could have really devolved into hammy melodrama or rampant grief porn, but Raff seems equal to the task of making these characters and their paralyzing anxieties simmer with real frank authenticity. The performances are all, as alluded to, key here, and the always dependable Pugh gives one of her finest and most committed performances of her career as Allison, who somehow makes audiences connect with this horribly troubled woman that does so much self harm (and, in the process, hurts other people close to her) and doesn't appear to be getting much better as the film progresses. As superlative as Pugh is here, for me the real standout is Freeman, who inhabits one of his most layered and complex characters in years as this former Vietnam vet/police detective that has sinned many times over in his own life and battles with sobriety and regrets about being both an absentee and abusive father in the past. The Oscar winning actor has made a career of playing wise and agreeable characters, but here he's gifted a role - initially at least - that seems like that of a kindly old elder that'll be the voice of reason, but emerges as someone that doesn't have all of the answers because he's anything but a saint. Like Allison, he's hurt people too in different kinds of appalling ways.
There's a lot going on in A GOOD PERSON, especially when it comes to tragedy, abuse, addiction, finding ways to triumph over grief and anger, and - most crucially - arriving at a difficult intersection to forgive others while accepting and taking responsibility for one's own indiscretions. The film is also observant when it comes to traversing how trauma affects not only Allison and Daniel, but Ryan as well, who lost a mother and father far too early in life and now has trouble making it through adolescence without them (O'Connor is also resoundingly good in her tricky role). Everything seems to be going so well for this film until it almost derails in its final sections, during which time it perhaps rushes too uneasily into a sense of positive-minded closure. I think the relative complexity of the characters contained here deserves a less simplistic ending, but A GOOD PERSON remains ultimately engrossing in the way it examines its doomed souls and finds ways to have them intersect and process their shared misery to achieve some form of spiritual recovery. And Pugh and Freeman elevate nearly every single scene they occupy here by playing characters that have haunted pasts riddled with misdeeds that negatively spilled over into other people's lives. Best yet, A GOOD PERSON puts Braff confidently back on the directorial map, especially after two decades of his own filmmaking setbacks and failures.