In 2004, Zach Braff delighted a particular sect of angst-ridden millennials with Garden State, which he starred in, wrote and directed. The movie, which also featured Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard and Ian Holm, tapped into a sense of youthful ennui—the feeling that you’ve lost your way, even though you have no idea where you’re going.
A GOOD PERSON ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Since then, Braff has stepped behind the camera several times, including on 2014’s Wish I Was Here and an early episode of Ted Lasso (which earned him an Emmy nod). But as a writer and director, he hasn’t been able to recapture the existential drift of Garden State—perhaps because he lacked the proper inspiration. During the pandemic, however, while living with his then-girlfriend Florence Pugh, Braff wrote A Good Person, a story set in motion by the loss of a friend to Covid.
At its core, A Good Person, which stars Pugh as Allison, a woman who becomes addicted to opioids after a fatal car crash, is about grief. But it also evokes a similar feeling of uncertainty as Garden State. Like Andrew in that film, Allison isn’t completely sure she wants to live. Her personal pain, brought on by dual deaths in the accident, casts a heavy shadow over the possibility of joy. Even as the film’s plot tips slightly overdramatic, it hits on something that feels very true, especially for viewers who have experience with addicts.
In the opening scenes, Allison is buoyant and upbeat. She sings, jokes and kisses her fiancé Nathan (Chinaza Uche) with what looks like true love. That happiness quickly dissipates, however, as Allison drives her future sister-in-law and her future sister-in-law’s husband to go wedding dress shopping. In an instant, everyone’s life has imploded. Allison is badly injured; both of her passengers die. When Braff cuts to a year later, Allison and Nathan have broken up and she’s desperate for more pills to ease the physical and emotional pain. Her mom Diane (Molly Shannon) is equal parts enabler and frustrated onlooker, urging Allison to finally restart her life.
Pugh goes willingly into Allison’s darkness without any vanity. Her performance is raw and well-researched, as is Braff’s depiction of the lengths addicts will go to in order to alleviate their discomfort. Once Allison finally acknowledges that she has a problem, she finds herself in an AA meeting alongside Daniel (Morgan Freeman), Nathan’s alcoholic father who blames Allison for the death of his daughter. He’s a mess as well, attempting to raise his rebellious, grieving teenage granddaughter Ryan (Celeste O’Connor) as a bottle of booze tempts him from the cupboard.
While the trailer suggests that Allison’s tentative friendship with Daniel drives the film, their relationship is not quite so easy. He can’t forgive her and she can’t accept responsibility, for anything. They are both broken people whose pain drives them to say and do cruel and irresponsible things, which seems to be what Braff means with the title. At times, Daniel’s anger—and his actions—feel unrealistic and out of sync with the rest of the film. But Pugh’s portrayal of addiction is so good and O’Connor is so charismatic that it almost doesn’t matter.
As a filmmaker, Braff is willing to acknowledge that life is hard. In fact, sometimes it’s awful. But it also contains moments of hope and light. That juxtaposition in Garden State felt innovative at the time. Allowing a depressed protagonist to have genuine self-realization and to end on an upbeat note was both sincere and relatable. Allison is aimless for different reasons and addiction manifests in different ways to depression, but here again Braff presents the undeniable darkness and then opens the window to allow a potential gleam of sun.
As a film, A Good Person is not perfect. There are a few odd, unnecessary scenes. Freeman, while always enjoyable, phones in some key moments. But the feeling the movie offers is realistic and sometimes shattering. The opioid crisis is worth examining—as is addiction in general—and Braff has found a way to do so that refrains from being didactic. In the end, though, it’s Pugh who makes this story linger. Her performance is empathetic, considered and impactful, proving yet again that she’s one of Hollywood’s best actresses.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.
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