Writer-director Zach Braff’s affecting, if blandly titled, family drama, “A Good Person,” takes a largely convincing and compelling look at such big topics as grief, drug addiction, parental bonds, redemption and fate. Whether it will feel distinct enough from so many other screen stories of its kind may depend on just how many versions of this stacked deck of a film that viewers have seen and, as is so often the case, one’s own relatable life experiences.
Braff returns to his Garden State roots (he shot in and around his New Jersey hometown of South Orange) for this intricate tale of a pharmaceutical rep, Allison (Florence Pugh), who’s involved in a car accident that kills her passengers, Molly (Nichelle Hines) and Jesse (Toby Onwumere) — the sister and brother-in-law of her kindly fiancé, Nathan (Chinaza Uche). Allison, who’s also a budding singer-songwriter, survives but, a year later, is left with a stultifying addiction to the OxyContin that has helped her manage her pain. At this point, she’s in sheer survival mode, unable to work, split from Nathan and unhappily living with her long-divorced mother, Diane (Molly Shannon), a well-meaning enabler with her own set of compulsions.
Then there’s Nathan and Molly’s widowed father, Daniel (Morgan Freeman), a retired cop and recovering alcoholic, who’s in over his head as the guardian of his granddaughter, Ryan (Celeste O’Connor), a rebellious, hormonal teen still grieving the loss of her parents. Daniel, who keeps a whiskey bottle stashed away for the occasional look-but-don’t-touch, takes solace in his longtime model train set, a lovingly crafted re-creation of his town that allows him to reshape several key life events as he wishes they’d been. (If that sounds a bit too precious, it’s not. As handled, it’s beautiful.)
Allison and Daniel’s worlds are, of course, destined to collide. And they do when Allison, at the end of her opioid-dependent rope, gives in to visiting a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, unaware that it’s the same one Daniel attends. An anxious and ashamed Allison wants to bolt, but Daniel, looking to surmount his own anger and finger-pointing, urges her to stay and confront her demons.
And thus begins a cautious alliance between the broken pair who, in an ironic and poignant twist, may not be able to heal without the other.
Unsurprisingly, the road for Allison and Daniel — both individually and together — is a bumpy one. It’s made no easier by Ryan’s unforgiving presence and escalating defiance, which inspires Allison to step in to help the flailing Daniel better deal with his granddaughter. Despite the dicey dynamic, a friendship eventually blooms between Allison and Ryan that will come with its own challenges (and, honestly, a few contrivances).
Meanwhile, Nathan, who has moved on with his post-Allison life, finds there may be a slow way back to some kind of détente with his estranged, once-abusive and hard-drinking dad. It’s another one of the film’s many powerful, difficult journeys that offer emotional rewards.
Still, Braff sometimes takes the more obvious, melodramatic route when a subtler approach to certain themes and actions would have sufficed. (For one, the film’s overwrought, second-act low point needed a rethink.) Overall, though, he manages enough honest, superbly charged moments between his various character pairings that more than make up for his earnest missteps.
Enough can’t be said about the two lead performances. Pugh (“Little Women,” “Don’t Worry Darling”) has quickly become one of the best young actors out there, and her portrayal of the defeated Allison is galvanizing, lived-in and heartbreaking. As for Freeman, though we expect excellence from the veteran star, his performance here is next-level. It’s one of his best turns in years as he, like Pugh, is asked to work through a kaleidoscope of emotions, memories and crucibles.
The rest of the cast, including Zoe Lister-Jones as Allison’s supportive but no-nonsense sponsor, is also fine, though Shannon could have used a bit more modulation. In his one tough scene as a slacker who turns the tables on Allison, Alex Wolff is terrific.
“A Good Person” isn’t an easy ride but, like such disparate, if similarly themed, movies as “Rabbit Hole,” “Waves” and “Four Good Days,” it’s a haunting slice of real life that will make you think, feel and maybe even want to reach out to your loved ones. As the film vividly shows, they can be gone in a flash.
‘A Good Person’
Rating: R, for drug abuse, language throughout and some sexual references
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: In general release