‘A Good Person’ Review: Florence Pugh Connects in an Addiction Drama That Marks a Return to Form (If You Like His Form) for Zach Braff (2024)

The drama of addiction and recovery, as it takes place in the movies, tends to come at us like a series of rituals. There’s the rule-by-rule, day-by-day protocol of 12-step programs (the meetings, the showing up, the sharing, the calls to sponsors); a lot of us may feel we know it well from movies, even if we’ve never personally undergone the experience. There are the deeply engraved patterns of addiction itself: the highs, the lows, the cravings, the exploitation of friends and family members, the descent to the bottom, the grasping for the drink or the pill or the fix (or the one that isn’t there) and, in some cases, the criminal behavior. The reaching out to save oneself is also a kind of ritual — one that some addicts would say God built into us.

The ritual, when it comes to this topic, extends to the audience. We live in a profoundly addictive society; whether or not you, I, or anyone else happens to be an “addict,” we all carry shadings of the addictive temperament. And dramas of addiction, like “Clean and Sober” or “The Way Back,” have so many rhyming touchstones of behavior that they almost become a kind of therapy for the viewer. That’s why when you’re watching one, you can be aware of the emotions it’s manipulating, even the buttons it’s pushing, and still be drawn in and moved by it. A good addiction drama doesn’t have to be art, any more than therapy is art. What it does need to do is tell the truth about itself — to not cut corners, to make the trauma of its characters honest and relatable.

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A Good Person,” the fourth feature written and directed by Zach Braff (and the best one that he has made since his first, “Garden State,” in 2004), is exactly that kind of movie. It’s an addiction drama that has scenes you can bicker with, a few contrivances, and other peccadilloes. Yet beneath the middlebrow situational conventionality, there’s a core of raw feeling and truth to it. The movie creates a highly specific situation — about its heroine, and about an entire family — that it carries right through. It’s not a melodrama about scraping bottom. It’s a story of lives that have been frozen by tragedy, and of how the unfreezing happens.

If there’s any movie cliché I’d be glad never to see again, it’s the one where you’re watching happy characters for the first 5 or 10 minutes, and they’re driving in a car, and then — BASH!! — a huge vehicle comes out of nowhere and sideswipes them, and so much for happiness. That cliché has become an assaultive and overly programmed way of doling out The Hand Of Fate. But “A Good Person,” early on, has a scene that’s a sophisticated version of the auto-accident-out-of-the-blue disaster, and it’s remarkably effective.

Talk about happiness crashing and burning. We’ve just been to the engagement party of Ally (Florence Pugh) and Nathan (Chinaza Uche), who live in New Jersey and are radiantly in love. Ally sells wholesale pharmaceutical drugs for a living, and feels a bit guilty about it, but she’s a soulful (if non-professional) piano player and singer, and her party rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” is an ideal mood-setter.

A scene or two later, she and her future sister-in-law, Molly (Nichelle Hines), and Molly’s husband, Jesse (Toby Onwumere), are driving into New York City for a shopping expedition and possible theater outing. Ally is at the wheel, and as their plans are forming she takes out her phone to glance, for a moment, at a map. It’s the wrong moment. A bulldozer on a road-construction site to her left lifts its shovel into the highway, and the next thing you know…well, we don’t see the accident, but we cut to its aftermath. Ally is laying in a hospital bed with a serious head injury. Molly and Jesse? They’re gone.

The loss of life is staggering, but what hovers over the movie (even though, smartly, it doesn’t bring up the subject until much later on) is that Ally looked away from the road. Did that make the accident her fault? Maybe so, but you could put that question another way: Who of us hasn’t stolen a look at a cell-phone map for two seconds while driving along the highway?

Cut to a year later. Ally has every right to her trauma, and to her guilt. And the way she sees it, she has every right to her pills — the sky-blue OxyContin painkillers she started taking for her injuries and has been popping ever since. We don’t need to be told that she’s self-medicating; neither does Ally or her mother, Diane (Molly Shannon), in whose home she’s now living. In America, self-medication has practically become a point of pride. But what happened to Ally’s engagement? We assume it fell apart out of the revelation that she, on some level, bore responsibility for the death of her fiancée’s sister and brother-in-law. We would be wrong. (That’s another smart touch.) What we can see is that Ally is now in one desolate cocoon.

Florence Pugh doesn’t distance herself, and doesn’t do overwrought acting out either. She brings Ally’s emotions right to us through the hypnotic blur of her confusion. Ally’s life has become a limbo, and Pugh nails the considerable acting feat of getting us to connect to that. Early on, Ally follows a self-hair-trimming tutorial to chop her own hair into a shorter, not-insane-looking, but still rather telling cut — a martyr’s bob. She’s coasting, but her Oxy refills have run out, and that means she’s about to go off a cliff.

Pugh enacts all of this with an anxious authenticity you can’t look away from. Ally has a riveting sarcastic meltdown at the pharmacy. She has breakfast with Becka (Ryann Redmond), a former big-pharma colleague, all so that she can ask her for drugs. (Becka is appropriately put off, leaving Ally high and dry.) Then she goes to a bar in the middle of the morning, where she orders a tequila and talks to two losers she knew in high school, and when they see the condition she’s in they’re so casually sad*stic about mocking the former princess that the scene flirts with tapping into their misogyny, except that Braff is too good a writer to do that. His dialogue has a rock-solid empathy; it’s full of vivid and contrasting voices.

A central one belongs to Daniel (Morgan Freeman), who was going to be Ally’s father-in-law, and who kicks off the movie in a very Morgan Freeman way, speaking to us in voice-over about the comforting utopia of building model trains. Freeman, in recent years, has been cast as outwardly spiky but angelic characters. Not so here. Daniel has a benign surface with demons inside. A retired cop and Vietnam veteran, as well as a violent drunk with 10 years of sobriety behind him, he has done more than his share of damage. Freeman makes him a saintly sinner of an old granddad who, in the right circ*mstances, will threaten to blow your brains out and mean it. It’s a terrific role, and Freeman runs with it, making Daniel an addict of puckishly philosophical pain and depth.

When Ally, realizing that she’s become a pharmaceutical junkie, and that she’s got to find a way out, wanders into a church for a 12-step meeting, who does she find there but — yes — Daniel, who has always blamed her for the accident. We think: Okay, these two at the same meeting feels a little tidy. But you can get hung up on the contrivance, or you can roll with it to get to the scene a few minutes later where Ally and Daniel are talking at a diner, and we see the interface of two stricken souls with a thornier connection than either one can acknowledge.

Braff unfolds his story on parallel tracks: Ally’s rocky road to recovery, and Daniel trying — and failing — to be an effective guardian to his orphaned granddaughter, Ryan (Celeste O’Connor), who at 16 is doing her own acting out. What’s compelling about the movie isn’t so much that a single tragedy connects both stories but that we see, in the telling, how trauma has its own karma, spreading across a family.

Maybe healing has its own karma, too. In “A Good Person,” wounds are torn open, truths are spoken, and hugs happen. It’s that kind of movie. Yet if the uplifting side of the addiction drama can be one of its pieties, in this case it feels earned. It was clear from “Garden State,” with its quirky surface and woozy heart, that Zach Braff is a certain kind of commercial sentimentalist. But though more than a few critics rolled their eyes at that movie, it had a romantic conviction that won some of us over. His next film, “Wish I Was Here” (2014), was a misfire, and his remake of “Going in Style” (2017) was a trifle, but “A Good Person” finds Braff, at 47, drawing on his experience to create a movie that feels rooted in life. Where some may see a facile filmmaker, I see facility. And a voice that’s his own.

‘A Good Person’ Review: Florence Pugh Connects in an Addiction Drama That Marks a Return to Form (If You Like His Form) for Zach Braff (2024)
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