A standout performance in a mediocre movie is the sign of a stellar actor. Renee Zwellweger in Judy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada all became touchstone roles for the actor. A Good Person is that movie for Florence Pugh.
Written by Zach Braff (the actor turned filmmaker behind Garden State), the film follows Allison, a late-twenties pharmaceutical rep whose life is completely upended when she kills her future sister and brother-in-law in a car accident. Left to pick up the pieces, she soon breaks things off with her fiance Nathan (Chinaza Uche) to push down the guilt. Allison shuts out the world while in recovery, developing a dependence on prescription medication. Her mother (Molly Shannon) struggles with the right way to handle her daughter’s addiction, providing a roof over her head but not much else.
Across town, Nathan’s once abusive father Daniel (Morgan Freeman) is now a devoted grandfather, left to raise his teenage granddaughter Ryan (Celeste O’Connor). Semi-estranged from his son, he fully blames Allison for the death of his daughter, believing she was on her phone at the time of the accident.
After realizing that her oxy addiction is leading to other drugs, Allison attends an NA meeting where she see Daniel. Realizing the strength it took to get her here, he asks her to stay and the two go through a sobriety journey together.
A Good Person is Florence Pugh’s movie. She is brilliant. Bringing a natural, raw energy to her character, you can’t help but follow her every movement on-screen. Braff, who Pugh was dating for three years before breaking up in 2022, clearly knows how to write for the actress. She disappears into the part. Pugh and Braff seem to get one another on-screen even if the director doesn’t fully know how to tell this story.
Morgan Freeman is given more to work with here than in his other more recent roles. Instead of an old man trying to get his kicks or a handler in some action movie, the actor channels the gravitas he had in the previous decade. He gets a little saccharine at times but his chemistry with Pugh drives the film along.
The script is at its best when Braff chooses to be funny, chooses to be playful with his characters. It’s not just that the subject matter is so heavy, but that story weighed down by the emotion Braff projects onto the audience. He enlists two brilliant comedic actresses, Molly Shannon as Pugh’s mother and Zoe Lister Jones as her NA sponsor, but then doesn’t utilize them to their full potential.
Braff, who won a Grammy for his curation of the Garden State soundtrack, shows his age with his latest cinematic playlist. The score features sterile piano amongst melancholy indie pop ballads. With his past films, I always came away dying to know the title and artist of at least one song. This doesn’t happen with A Good Person. Instead the musical vibe is as disjointed as the story.
However, the film does feature original songs written by Pugh that have the grittiness and raw vulnerability of some of the songs on Braff’s previous soundtracks. Sure, there’s not a modern equivalent to “Let Go,” Frou Frou’s anxiously aware anthem that seemed to lyrically and melodically encompass the themes of Garden State. We just don’t hear enough of Pugh’s songs, but it’s enough to pull you in.
I don’t know if Zach Braff is the person to tell this story. Is he able to handle the nuances of how and when someone is redeemed? Freeman’s character talks openly about the child abuse he inflicted on his own children and yet he appears to be the film’s moral center. Braff doesn’t have the refinement as a filmmaker to give this story the air and space it needs. It is a story of redemption and self-forgiveness and truths that gets overshadowed by melodrama.
If the story was more streamlined, with 20 minutes shaved off of its 130 minute runtime, it wouldn’t have the drag nor moral dilemmas Braff corners himself with. Despite his narrative shortcomings, he understands how to write for Pugh. Every word out of her mouth after the accident feels true and raw. Pugh seamlessly decodes the messages Braff is sending his audience and packages them into something palatable. They understand each other, and when Pugh’s on-screen, it’s beautiful to watch.
A Good Person is in theaters now.