Review: Though it Lacks Dramatic Tension, Zach Braff’s A Good Person Features Some Good Acting

As a writer/director, Zach Braff tends toward the lighter side of dramas with works like Garden State and Wish I Was Here, but with his latest effort, A Good Person, events in his life at the time he wrote the film were such that something much darker came out of it. In the matter of a few years, Braff lost two immediate family members (his father and sister), as well as his best friend (Broadway actor Nick Cordero, who, at the age of 41, was an early victim of COVID-19 in 2020 and died while living in Braff’s guest house with his wife and young child). Braff took that pain and wrote a film about the many ways people process and deal with overwhelming grief, which includes numbing the pain with drugs or alcohol.

The film opens with the great tragedy that serves as the jumping off point for Allison’s (Florence Pugh) struggle. She and fiancé Nathan (Chinaza Uche) are in the planning stages of their wedding, when she, Nathan’s sister and brother-in-law are in a terrible car accident that kills her passengers and puts her in the hospital for many weeks, resulting in her getting addicted to pain killers. The film actually jumps ahead to a year after the accident, and we discover that Alison’s world has completely caved in on itself. She’s now living with her mother Diane (Molly Shannon), who enjoys a drink or seven fairly regularly; she’s been taking OxyContin for more than a year; and she broke off her engagement to Nathan, who still very much wanted to marry her. Depression is her constant companion, and early in the film she attempts an adjustment in her attitude about her life by cutting her own hair without a mirror.

After arguing with her mother about her oxy usage, she agrees to attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting nearby, and coincidentally runs into the man who would have been her father-in-law, Daniel (Morgan Freeman), who is a recovering alcoholic and who very much blames her for the accident. But he believes that something brought the two of them to the same meeting for a reason, and he’s determined to find out what it is. He keeps her from leaving. The moment is doubly awkward because her ex (Daniel’s son) was estranged from his father for reasons he never made entirely clear. The accident also left Daniel’s teenage granddaughter Ryan (Celeste O’Connor) without any parents, and she now lives with him to mixed results.

During the course of A Good Person, these two storylines move parallel to each other most of the time, occasionally crossing each other when Braff sees the need to up the drama. Allison and Daniel form a tentative but supportive bond. When Ryan finds out how they know each other, she loses it briefly but eventually becomes curious about Allison and wants to bombard her with questions, mostly about why her relationship with her uncle Nathan fell apart. At one point, she even attempts to set them up again, not knowing that Nathan has moved on in his romantic life.

But Braff being Braff, he can’t help but find moments of humor in even some of the darkest moments of his film. Daniel attempting to understand his granddaughter’s rebellious streak, especially when it comes to boys, is a frequent topic for attempted laughs. Diane's failed attempts at physically reigning in Allison’s addictive behavior result in a few chuckles. And the one scene where Diane and Daniel finally meet is outright charming and quite funny, though it only lasts a couple of minutes.

Admittedly, a great deal of A Good Person works, and as much as Braff wanted to make a film about the grieving process, he ended up making one about addiction. When the film slips into that story wholeheartedly, things begin to fall apart, through no fault of Pugh and Freeman, who deliver undeniably great performances here. What doesn’t work is basically every single thing that Ryan does to make someone’s life better, and I don’t think Braff intended for that to be the case. It’s rare when you can spot a single character and say, “That character doesn’t work and should be removed from the film or rewritten entirely,” but here we are.

Worse still, some scenes near the end don’t ring true in the context of the addiction recovery process. I was thrilled to see the great writer/director/actor Zoe Lister-Jones show up as Allison’s sponsor, but not enough is accomplished with her as part of the mix. We inevitably end up spending the whole movie waiting for Allison or Daniel or both to fall off the wagon, which doesn’t give the filmmaker an iota of dramatic tension to work with. What starts out as a strong and promising premise with A Good Person simply doesn’t pan out or give us anything new in the field of addiction movies or films about characters displaying destructive behavior as a result of mourning. As an acting showcase, you could do a lot worse, and for those of us currently collecting performances by Pugh, you’re in good hands. It’s the rest of you that will have to suffer through what’s left with this film.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.