While Zach Braff might be best known for his comedic acting roles, his filmmaking ventures, specifically the three he’s written and directed, have primarily dealt with serious family dramas and that specific genre. Of course, everyone knows his 2007 breakout film, “Garden State,” or at least the memes, which tackles a quarter-life crisis and depression. Then came “Wish I Was Here” in 2014, covering fatherhood and cancer (he also directed the 2017 comedy, “Going in Style,” which he didn’t write and didn’t feel personal). Now, there’s “A Good Person,” a drama that features incredible performances and focuses on grief, trauma, and addiction. But as with those aforementioned films, there’s this underlying feeling of inauthenticity, which makes “A Good Person” feel like a retelling of other, better movies and less like a deep dive into the soul of Braff.
“A Good Person” begins with a quick introduction to Allison (Florence Pugh) and Nathan (Chinaza Uche), a young couple celebrating their recent engagement and planning a great life in the future. All of those plans are upended when a simple mistake by Allison causes a car accident that results in the deaths of her future sister-in-law and brother-in-law. A year passes, and we see the fallout of this accident as Allison is no longer engaged, living with her mother, and struggling with opioid addiction. The story really picks up with Allison reconnecting with her almost-father-in-law, Daniel (Morgan Freeman), while at an AA meeting. From there, we watch Allison attempt to get her life back on track while reckoning with the trauma and grief stemming from the accident.
The plot description already shows the seeds of what is one of the biggest issues facing “A Good Person” — familiarity. If you’ve watched any number of family dramas, whether in film or TV, “A Good Person” treads a lot of familiar territories. A major accident leading to trauma and grief? Check! A pretty person getting sucked into a surprising addiction? Present! Two unlikely people coming together with different but similar pain, helping each other grow? You bet! While it could be seen as unfair to criticize a film for having trope-y elements, as some might say, “there’s nothing new under the sun,” it’s how these situations are presented that enter the uncanny valley of emotions. It looks real, thanks to the cast’s excellent performances, but something about the drama just feels… fake.
Everything, from the dialogue to the occasional camera flourishes, feels as if it was conceived from an A.I. pulling ideas from other films. There isn’t any clear indication that the situations in the story are anything that Braff has been through himself. Obviously, not every filmmaker must only tell stories about lived experiences, but a film handling such heavy themes and emotional situations truly succeeds when there’s a level of authenticity. “A Good Person,” in a way similar to Braff’s other films, feels like it was crafted using a filmmaking recipe (a tablespoon of personal trauma and one dash of parental strife mixed with a heaping helping of crying at AA meetings, let simmer for 90 minutes) rather than any creative urgency or emotional imperative.
But goddamn, Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman can act.
Even in the midst of various cliche-heavy scenes, Pugh and Freeman deliver in spades. In Pugh’s case, it’s abundantly clear that Braff knows exactly where the actress thrives. As seen in a film like “Midsommar,” scan to convey despair in a way that few today are able to do. So, even when you can see it coming from a mile away, the moments of intense emotion are hard-hitting and impactful. The same goes for Freeman, seen here as the curmudgeonly old grandpa who thought he had his life figured out but is left to raise his granddaughter after the car accident. He is given a role that allows him to flex his dramatic chops in a way we haven’t seen in what feels like ages. He’s the grandfatherly Morgan Freeman we know and love in some scenes, for sure, but he’s also given scenes that feel tailor-made for an awards season sizzle real. (Again, no matter the skill, there’s that nagging feeling of contrivance in the material.) And it’s not just Pugh and Freeman who turn in quality performances. The young Celeste O’Connor is excellent, in her limited screen time, as Ryan. The same goes for Chinaza Uche as Nathan, who is able to convey hurt and pain even in the smallest moments.
However, great actors and inspired performances can only help a film so much. And in the case of “A Good Person,” Zach Braff presents another competent movie that checks all of the dramatic boxes but does so in a way that feels like ChatGPT has already invaded Hollywood. [C-]
“A Good Person” hits theaters on March 24 via MGM.
‘A Good Person’ Review: A Terrific Florence Pugh & Morgan Freeman Aren’t Enough To Salvage Zach Braff’s Hollow Family Drama