An interesting litmus test of the shift in our zeitgeist’s consideration of female characters — or of female agency at large — exists in the space between the release of Zach Braff’s “Garden State” in 2004 and the reconstituted consensus around the film in the next decade.
The movie remains a charming piece of mid-aughts indie quirkism, but over the years its character Sam, played by Natalie Portman, became emblematic of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope: a hollow tool, conjured by purportedly sensitive male indie fantasies, to help the protagonist on his journey toward self-actualization. That isn’t the case with “A Good Person,” Braff’s latest film. Its strongest quality, in fact, is how fully embodied and how human Florence Pugh is as the grieving Allison, a woman who is undone by a car accident that kills her sister- and brother-in-law-to-be.
Yet, there’s another storytelling mechanism Braff has repurposed and coarsely dialed up. Like “Garden State,” in which Andrew (Braff, who wrote and directed the film) has been medicated and stuck his entire life after being involved in the accident that killed his mother, “A Good Person” sees Allison suffocated by guilt and desperately seeking to escape herself through opioids.
Soon, she falls into addiction, a downward spiral the film handles quickly. After Allison hits rock bottom, she goes to an A.A. meeting, where she bumps into Daniel (Morgan Freeman), whose son she had planned to marry and whose daughter died in the crash. Daniel, a recovering alcoholic whose sobriety is being tested as he struggles to raise his granddaughter on his own, has always blamed Allison, who was driving the car, for the crash. The unlikely bond Pugh and Freeman create becomes the beating heart of the film, and there is rich emotion in Allison and Daniel’s shared struggles as they sketch the contours of their pain to each other.
Allison’s sparkling life before and her descent after the accident are written with such a heavy hand and confused tone, however, that much of the film reads as a crassly manufactured setup for the arc of redemption and healing that follows. A climactic moment at a party involving Allison’s and Daniel’s sobriety is so bizarre and overwrought, you might find yourself shocked to learn it’s not a dream sequence.
Braff is going for something broader than indie naturalism, so perhaps the film calls for less subtle brushstrokes. But the result is something that rings with far less thoughtfulness than he’s clearly capable of (particularly in light of the opioid crisis that the film mentions), despite Pugh’s remarkable attempts to ground the story.
This isn’t to say that “A Good Person” is disingenuous: Braff wrote the script while wrestling with the deaths of several loved ones in the last few years. But the film would do better understanding that its core sufferings, of mourning and of self-blame, are dramatic enough. Instead it gets lost in raising the stakes to center a big-hearted tale of recovery. The real story is in the quiet moments, where the silence of grief hangs palpably between Allison and Daniel, ever-present and consuming.
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