Hoping to recapture that “Garden State” magic, writer-director Zach Braff goes dark with the addiction film “A Good Person” featuring compelling performances by Florence Pugh as an opioid addict and Morgan Freeman as a recovering alcoholic. Themes of abuse, abandonment, guilt, denial, healing, and adolescent sexuality are woven into the powerful and emotional story. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel weighed down as hope and resilience balance the film. There are a few dubious moments but unless you’ve walked in these characters’ shoes, how can you judge their authenticity? Pugh has never been better.
Just as happiness precedes success and achievement (not vice versa), it’s also the prologue to sorrow. Allison (Pugh) glows from the jubilation that accompanies an engagement. She’s a successful pharmaceutical rep and a part-time singer-songwriter who, in the film’s opening scene, serenades close friends that have gathered for a party celebrating her upcoming nuptials to Nathan (Chinaza Uche). Pugh gave us a taste of her vocal talent in “With You All the Time” from “Don’t Worry Darling.” Here, she sings several times and plays the piano. In fact, Pugh wrote and performed two songs for the film, “The Best Part” and “I Hate Myself.”
While on a trip from New Jersey into NYC to try on wedding dresses, Allison, accompanied by her future sister-in-law Molly (Nichelle Hines) and her husband Jesse (Toby Onwumere), the two eager to catch a Broadway show, are involved in a horrific traffic accident. Allison is the only survivor. She wakes up in the hospital with a head injury, cuts, bruises, and no recollection of the crash. She’ll recover but life will never be the same.
Fast forward one year. Allison lives at home with her divorced mother Diane (Molly Shannon) who has a penchant for wine. The wedding to Nathan was called off after the accident and since then the two have gone their separate ways. The former pharma rep is now addicted to OxyContin and her prescriptions have run out.
Across town, recovering alcoholic (10 years sober) and retired police officer Daniel (Morgan Freeman) is busy trying to keep up with his teenage granddaughter Ryan (Celeste O’Connor) whose parents were killed in the accident Allison survived. He now serves as her legal guardian. Ryan is angry most of the time, still grieving her parents, which is causing problems at school. She’s one step away from being expelled and Daniel doesn’t know what to do. He was hoping the school officials would give him advice and his estranged son Nathan is no help. He wants nothing to do with his father and with good reason. The story reveals why they don’t speak and it’s traced back to Nathan’s childhood.
When Daniel is not busy taking Ryan’s phone away or chasing strange boys from his home, the widowed grandfather is in the basement tinkering with his elaborate model train set which has been set up to reflect important moments in his life via the hand-painted figurines that are scattered throughout the set. There’s one of Daniel in a soldier’s uniform being welcomed home from Vietnam by his father. In actuality, no one was there to greet Daniel when he returned from the war. His father was at home passed out drunk. Sadly, the figurines in the train set reflect how Daniel wished life had played out.
Back in Allison’s world, her dependence on opioids is causing tension with Diane who flushed her daughter’s last available prescription down the toilet after fearing she’s become addicted to the painkillers. This leads to grueling scenes of desperation as she hits up a former coworker for meds and an unforgettable moment in a bar where she’s forced to admit to being a junkie by two former high school classmates (one of them played by searing Alex Wolf).
Braff turns it up a notch when he brings Allison and Daniel together at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They haven’t seen each other since the accident. She’s ridden with guilt, and he blames her for taking his daughter away. They meet when Allison decides to get help for her addiction by attending a random meeting run by a counselor named Simone (a very good Zoe Lister-Jones). When she eyeballs Daniel, she panics and heads for the door, but he stops her and convinces her to stay, feelings aside, realizing the importance of taking that first step.
Allison and Daniel develop a relationship that can only be described as therapeutic. They proceed with caution; he forbids her to contact Ryan. As a dialogue opens, each describes how they feel but as the story develops the conversations become tense when true feelings rise to the surface. Nathan and Ryan eventually come into the fold leading to a rollercoaster ride of emotions. A climax fueled by drugs, alcohol, and F-bombs makes for an unforgettable moment between Pugh and Freeman. The two deliver remarkable performances that manage to sidestep the melodrama that develops after Braff lets the story wander into that grey plausibility area.
“A Good Person” features great performances and despite all the darkness that surrounds the story, the writer-director manages to keep the film from depressing the audience with small pockets of hope that intermittingly rise to the surface and a few shots of comedy to add levity. Morgan Freeman, who also provides narration, shows us a different side rarely seen as Daniel becomes callous and cruel, but it’s Florence Pugh’s brave performance (her best yet) that drives Zach Braff’s no pain, no gain return to the cinema.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters