Actor turned writer/director Zach Braff must’ve gleaned some nuggets of wisdom after directing shows like Shrinking and Ted Lasso because in his latest effort, A Good Person, he’s managed to align his brand of hipster wisdom and weepy psychology into something engaging and, dare we say, genuine? Dealing with themes such as grief, addiction and redemption, Braff’s third writing and directorial effort utilizes tropes he’s used in his other films: an indie pop music soundtrack, navel-gazing characters, and teary confessions. This time, he doesn’t stumble into silly scenarios (like characters screaming into an “infinite abyss” to unburden themselves in the mysteriously beloved Garden State), or basically anything from 2014’s Wish I Were Here– a self-indulgent mess that put Braff in hot water due to its problematic Kickstarter campaign.
Braff’s syrupy earnestness is still on display here, and it still grates a bit, but this time the characters feel like they’re speaking for themselves, not the author’s intended virtues. The result packs a surprisingly emotional punch and is a much better example of his strengths as a filmmaker than past efforts.
There was a time when Allison (Florence Pugh) was the life of the party. She could entertain a room full of friends, including her fiancé Nathan (Chinaza Uche), by playing the piano and singing standards in a sultry voice. Pugh actually sings the songs in the movie and her voice is savory and textured. Is there anything “Miss Flo” can’t do? One day, Allison drives to shop for a wedding dress with her future sister-in-law and brother-in-law when she gets into a car accident, killing both passengers. After the accident, she breaks it off with Nathan and goes into hiding. The emotional wreckage she left behind falls in the lap of Nathan’s father, Daniel (Morgan Freeman), a retired cop who’s forced to raise his granddaughter alone.
A year later, Allison is aimless, disheveled, and living with her mother (Molly Shannon), who constantly yells at her and swills wine as if she were touring Santa Ynez. Unable to recover from the accident, Allison descends into an addiction to OxyContin. Meanwhile, Daniel struggles to raise his feisty teenage granddaughter, Ryan (Celeste O’Connor). After losing her parents to the accident, Ryan acts out by getting in fights at school, bringing boys home she meets online, and basically forcing Daniel, who’s a recovering alcoholic, to occasionally pull a dusty bottle of whiskey from the cupboard and stare at it longingly before putting it back. As usual, Freeman brings a cool elegance and heartfelt grit to every scene.
After hitting her bottom, Allison goes to an AA meeting where she encounters Daniel. Horrified, she tries to leave, but Daniel implores her to stay. Realizing she’s probably carrying all the guilt from the accident that killed his daughter, Daniel takes her under his wing, and they form a unique bond. The best parts of the movie revolve around their burgeoning friendship, which is both touching and quietly tense. Even as they get to know each other and mean well, they also both ignore the real issue: the accident and its aftermath.
It’s wonderful to watch 85-year-old Freeman and 27-year-old Pugh (who is also Braff’s ex-girlfriend) volley off each other. Daniel isn’t just wrestling with his grief over losing his daughter, but struggling to discard his former persona, which nearly ruined his life and the relationship with his son, Nathan. Allison, on the other hand, isn’t simply going through the different phases of addiction, but seems continuously startled by the mess she’s made of her life. What connects these two lost souls is their need to reinvent themselves. Pugh is particularly good; even as situations –some unlikely– serve the screenplay more than her character, the actress hones in on Allison’s cagey and ruffled insecurities, which you believe every step of the way.
Braff has yet to reach the Robert Redford stature of filmmaking. Redford, also an actor turned writer/director, has always been fascinated with the murky nature of humanity, which is apparent in his films, A River Runs Through It and Ordinary People. Although Braff shares a similar outlook, his approach is much more direct and obvious. He favors exposition over ambiguity and his movies have a fairytale quality, which is both entertaining and highly frustrating. He chooses stories that have a genuine candor and tenacity, but his dialogue is often plagued with preachiness.
A Good Person maintains his maudlin style, especially towards the end, but this time the sentiment is earned. There are some undeniably foreboding moments, but thankfully, it wades into darker territory without quickly brightening everything with a “cute” scenario. Allison and Daniel aren’t telling us how to live; they’re just trying to discover something real in their lives.
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