A Good Person Review – Zach Braff Delivers an Uneven Melodrama About Grief, Addiction, and Redemption

In 2004 Zach Braff pivoted from acting into writing and directing with his debut feature Garden State. The film utilised the best of Braff’s skills as an actor and won an Independent Spirit Award in 2005. Looking back on the work it can be best described as an aughts zeitgeist film with a great soundtrack. Critical reappraisal hasn’t been kind to Garden State but at the time it was a solid indie which showed Braff had promise as a writer/director. Time proved that promise to be hollow with a string of commercial and critical bombs following for Braff. Was Garden State a once off? With the release of the confused and at times mawkish A Good Person, it would seem so despite Braff replicating a lot of what made Garden State successful.

There are strengths to A Good Person, and they lie mostly with the excellent performances by Florence Pugh, Morgan Freeman, and Celeste O’Connor. However the narrative which is part addiction drama, part forgiveness drama is messily executed, and Braff can’t help but insert his earnest but often misguided directorial voice that he admixes with an indie quirkiness that fails to allow the film to settle on a tone.

Allison (Florence Pugh) is twenty-six and engaged to Nathan (Chinaza Uche). Allison has a day job as a drug rep for a pharmaceutical company and is quietly pushing Nathan to leave New Jersey for the city when they can afford it. They are, of course, blissfully in love, but tragedy soon strikes as Allison is driving to NYC with Nathan’s sister Molly and her husband to try on wedding dresses and they are in a car crash which leaves Allison as the sole survivor and orphans Ryan (Celeste O’Connor).

Twelve month passes and we see Allison living with her mother, Diane (Molly Shannon) in her childhood home. Allison has become deeply depressed and addicted to oxycontin. Nathan is no longer in her life and she barely leaves the house. Diane is frustrated with her but consistently sends mixed messages. She’s either enabling Allison or telling her to pull herself up by the bootstraps. An argument over pills (the doctors are trying to wean Allison off oxy) gets physical and Diane flushes the remaining vial of pills down the toilet.

From this point we watch Allison debase herself to get a fix. She has no money; she can’t convince her one-time friend Becky who works for Perdue to give her some pills. She ends up at a bar where former high school people mock her for no longer being a queen bee. In a brutal scene Mark (Alex Wolff) hectors Allison to admit that she’s junkie trash before taking her outside to smoke crack. Allison realises she has hit rock bottom and is about to ask for help in getting rehab when Diane provides her with a bottle of oxy.

Meanwhile we see Nathan’s father, Daniel (Morgan Freeman) trying to take on the responsibility of raising the now sixteen-year-old Ryan. At 83, and not being a good parent the first time around due to his alcoholism, Daniel is struggling. Ryan, once a bright student with a promising soccer scholarship, is understandably acting out. Everything she has known has been taken away from her; her parents, her school, her sense of continuity. Love is not enough to connect Daniel and Ryan and he is close to breaking his ten-year sobriety.

Allison and Daniel find each other when Allison wanders into an AA meeting. At first Allison turns to run but Daniel decides that he will welcome Allison into the meeting and a brittle friendship forms between the two despite when Allison asks, “Daniel am I the reason you’re back here?” he responds “Yes, yes of course. What do you want me to say?”

Allison and Daniel’s relationship is based in grief and guilt. It is also based in punishment with Allison bearing the brunt of Daniel’s resentment. The interplay between them moves between Daniel offering Allison advice and encouragement and eventually letting her into Ryan’s life (possibly as a subtle punishment at first) to him using her as a kind of excuse for his fractured relationship with Nathan. They are broken people and Braff tries to mesh them together in something that is clearly a co-dependant relationship and attempts to view that relationship as eventually healing for both of them.

Unfortunately, very little of Braff’s writing justifies his end goal which is to reveal the Good Person inside the broken one. Daniel’s violent alcoholism is traced back to the trauma of his father’s violent alcoholism. Allison’s breakdown is more understandable. Addiction is insidious and comes from varying experiences but what Braff puts Allison through is almost cruel. It becomes especially so when Daniel’s frankness about what he did to Nathan and Molly as a violent blackout drunk is seen as somehow equivalent to Allison’s harrowing accident and spiral into dependency.

It is perhaps a cliché to write that performances elevate a pedestrian script but in the case of A Good Person it is undeniable. Pugh and Freeman work together well even when the material they’re working with undermines their talent. If we can believe that Daniel and Allison in some way need each other it is because of the commitment of the actors not because Braff’s writing makes the relationship feasible. Celeste O’Connor is convincing as Ryan but other talents such as Molly Shannon as Diane are given weak and sometimes baffling characterisation to work from.

There are times when Braff elicits some genuinely emotional set pieces, but they are swallowed by the overly melodramatic tone of the film. A Good Person just doesn’t seem to know what kind of film it wants to be. If it is about forgiveness then, yes, that element works when Allison realises she must find a way to forgive herself. As a story about grief it is uneven and although Allison earns her self-redemption the film is too uneven to believe in the almost saccharine ending. Braff has not grown as a filmmaker or writer and still believes putting a bunch of indie songs over a scene is enough to make it dramatically coherent. Still, for those who love Florence Pugh, her performance will not disappoint even if the film does.

Director: Zach Braff

Cast: Florence Pugh, Morgan Freeman, Molly Shannon

Writer: Zach Braff

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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