Mild Spoilers for A Good Person Ahead
We’ve now reached an artistic inflection point in the pandemic. The collective loss, whether it be personal or empathetic, direct or incidental, human or structural, has irrevocably changed the way in which we all move in this world. And now we’re beginning to see that impression of loss and grief reflected in some of our favorite creators’ content. Zach Braff’s work has never shied away from exploring the many peaks and pitfalls of the mourning journey, and with A Good Person, Braff is working through a good deal of personal loss and trauma. Remembered most fondly as Scrubs’ leading man John “JD” Dorian, he’s known for his ability to toe the line between whimsy and tragedy. And more often than not, he sticks the landing. At the heart of A Good Person is a story of both living and dying; a heartfelt tribute to the people who weather the storms of losing a loved one and a complicated, somewhat clunky, exploration of how to tell that story.
As is the way with most modern trailers, if you’ve seen the preview for A Good Person, there’s not much left to the imagination of the overarching plot of the film; a young woman (Allison, played by Florence Pugh) struggles in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy where she was the driver in a traffic accident that took the lives of her soon-to-be-sister-in-law, Molly, and Molly’s husband. This accident, of course, derails Allison’s impending wedding, and in her throes of survivor’s guilt, she chooses to leave her fiancé Nathan and opts to numb herself into oblivion by abusing her oxycontin prescription for an entire year. The bulk of the film takes place a year after the accident when she hits rock bottom and decides to get sober. After making that decision, she experiences a chance encounter with her would-be-father-in-law, Daniel (Morgan Freeman), at a local substance abuse meeting. This encounter then drives the remainder of the film.
Shortly before the pandemic, Zach Braff and Florence Pugh released a short film together called In the Time it Takes to Get There. The film was the result of a collegiate movie poster contest held by Adobe, where college students could design a completely original poster for a movie that did not yet exist. The winning poster (#MoviePosterMovie) would then be made into a film that was inspired by the poster itself. Zach Braff wrote and directed In the Time it Takes to Get There based on Sam West’s winning poster design. The results are a cheeky take on influencer culture filtered through an 18th-century backdrop starring Pugh and Alicia Silverstone. It’s only roughly eleven minutes long and you can find it here. Whether or not you find the short film of any cultural significance, what is important is that it brought Pugh and Braff together, and they seemingly began dating shortly after. Their relationship, which lasted nearly the length of the pandemic, was spent cohabitating during some of the most emotionally fraught years of Braff’s life.
In 2018, Braff lost his sister to an aneurysm and his father to cancer. In 2020 he lost his good friend, and fellow actor, Nick Cordero to complications from Covid-19, all the while Nick and his wife and baby were living in his guest house. And in the most recent tragedy in early 2022, Braff’s best friend and manager, Chris Huvane, took his own life. A Good Person, while already filmed at the time of Huvane’s death, is dedicated to him. Due in part to these recent losses, It’s no wonder that A Good Person does deliver on an emotional level. Not only was it conceived in the vacuum of the pandemic while the entire world was grieving, but it’s emotionally laced with the question: how does one go on if facing the absence around you is unbearable?
Pugh’s character, Allison, is dealing with this absence tenfold. She’s dealing with the absence of the two people whose lives were lost at her hand, the absence of the family she was about to inherit, and the newfound absence of self-worth and self-love. Like most addicts, she attempts to fill this abyss by convoluting her emotional and physical pain, and treating that self-ascribed pain with increasing doses of various substances, never wanting to be without for fear of facing her thoughts and herself. This story, the one detailing Allison’s struggle with grief birthed through Braff’s struggle with grief, is an interesting and compelling one (and beautifully acted by Pugh). Where A Good Person falters, however, is in its insistence to compartmentalize this struggle in the greater context of a film that uses contrived plot points, overwrought camera techniques, and overly sentimental narration.
Morgan Freeman’s Daniel is also, obviously, mourning a very specific type of loss. He’s mourning his departed daughter and son-in-law, he’s mourning his retirement and lifestyle as he’s now the caretaker for his orphaned teenage granddaughter, and he’s mourning the relationship he had with his son, Nathan. Daniel’s relationships with his children were already strained due to his prevalent alcoholism in their youth when he would drink to excess and become emotionally and physically abusive. You learn about these prior developments slowly throughout the film, in a way that feels emotionally manipulative by Braff’s hand, as if each scene is a puzzle piece that he’s laying down one by one to eventually reveal the full picture. But sometimes it feels as if the puzzle pieces are more so forced together than creating what is a natural progression of events. Some examples of these forced puzzle pieces are: Daniel reveals during a share in group that he once became so violent with Nathan that he deafened him in one ear, contradicting a shoehorned conversation we heard in a previous scene between Allison and a side character; Allison just so happens to be a pharmaceutical rep, so when her doctor eventually attempts to wean her off her medication, part of her rock bottom is reaching out to an ex-coworker for more oxy; and Daniel keeps a bottle of whiskey in a china cabinet that he pulls out in an early scene before returning it to the cabinet, and of course we see him return to that same bottle in a later scene in order to heighten tension. Each of these examples comes across as a rookie means of storytelling, surprisingly so for veteran Braff.
If A Good Person wasn’t so concerned with the structure of the story it's trying to tell, Allison and Daniel’s emotional arcs wouldn’t feel so manufactured by the film’s climax. The film constantly feels at war with itself, not letting the characters emotionally mature at their own pace, but rather at the pace of the film’s individual scenes. Braff’s longtime collaborator, Scrubs-creator Bill Lawrence, concurrently crafted his own exploration of grief (alongside Jason Segel and everyone’s favorite “ex-footballer,” Brett Goldstein), Shrinking, which premiered on AppleTV+ this past year. The differences between the two projects are vast, but where Shrinking succeeds is in its understanding of its genre. At its core, it’s a comedy, and the pacing and characters reflect that. Sure, there are moments that are deeply heartfelt and emotionally devastating, but the characters feel lived in and genuine. In A Good Person, the cast fluctuates between punchlines and after-school-special, Hallmark made-for-tv movie and indie drama, never quite landing on a harmonious balance that can shepherd the film through its turbulent and important subject matter.
There’s a great character study in A Good Person that I would have loved to have been explored further. When Pugh is onscreen, truly examining Allison, you can certainly feel that she feels held by Braff, letting her truly envelop Allison. On the whole, it’s a phenomenal performance. She just doesn’t belong in this particular film. As A Good Person is sold whole-cloth, picture as-is on the puzzle box, it’s not necessarily worth buying. But if the center of the puzzle, just Pugh’s face, could exist without the edge pieces filled with model trains, clunky exposition, and checkmark plot points, it would be the type of puzzle worth gluing together. As a big fan of both Braff and Pugh, I’m so glad A Good Person exists as a timestamp for their beautiful, yet brief, relationship, and as a well-earned means by which Braff could attempt to find catharsis for his grief. I just wish the project that is A Good Person could have also been a good movie.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.