A Good Person


“Hurt people hurt people,” often used in the context of empathy or forgiveness, is a valid statement about how patterns repeat unless people take steps to understand and change them. But it is also true that in some cases, only hurt people can help other hurting people. Their lived experience gives them credibility in sharing what they have learned and in providing those in need an example to show that they can do better and feel better. This is why support groups play a significant role in helping those with addictions, illness, loss, or experiencing abuse. 

Three badly hurt people help each other in “A Good Person.” Writer/director Zach Braff anchors the film with tender-hearted, touching performances by Morgan Freeman and Florence Pugh. Both play characters who struggle to find a way forward after devastating failures with tragic consequences. 

It is more formally conventional than his first film, “Garden State,” and thankfully less self-indulgent than his second film, “Wish I Was Here.” “A Good Person” benefits from the same shrewd sense of detail and character evident in both, taking on ambitious themes of addiction, abuse, abandonment, overwhelming grief, and finding a way to forgive the unforgivable, even when it means forgiving yourself. And, as the title suggests, what it means to be a good person.

Pugh plays Alison, a light-hearted young woman who dances along the surface of life and does not think too deeply about her choices. She is happily engaged to Nathan (a very appealing Chinaza Uche). She is making a lot of money as a sales rep for a pharma company, convincing herself that her work is not immoral because the only drug she is pushing is prescribed for a skin disease. 

One day, Alison drives her future sister- and brother-in-law to the city to help her pick out her wedding dress. For a few seconds, she takes her eyes off the road to look at the map on her phone near a construction site. She is unable to avoid a collision with a backhoe. Alison is injured, and her passengers are killed. 

A year later, the teenage daughter of the couple who was killed, Ryan (a lovely performance from Celeste O’Connor), lives with her grandfather, Daniel (Morgan Freeman). That adjustment is challenging for both of them as Ryan is hostile and acting out. Alison lies on her mother’s couch all day in a fog of oxycontin addiction, trying to numb her pain, emotional and physical. Her engagement is broken. Her mother, Diane (Molly Shannon), is running out of patience, and her doctors are cutting off her prescriptions.  

Alison becomes desperate for more drugs. Daniel, an alcoholic who has been sober for a decade, feels so helpless in dealing with Ryan that he contemplates drinking again. Instead, he takes comfort in his model train set, an environment where he has control and can even re-create his own history the way he wishes it had happened. 

The screenplay has structural problems, spending so much time on addiction that it shortchanges some plot developments and relationships. It relies on too-often-seen indicators—a character looks into the mirror to say, “I hate you,” and we get the significance of the model train set long before it is over-explained. But some sharp dialogue and Freeman and Pugh’s committed and insightful performances hold it together. Pugh is remarkably specific in every stage of Alison’s struggle with addiction, whether she is buzzed or “blissfully numb” or frantic to get some pills, detoxing, or somewhere in between. In one scene, she runs into some people she once looked down on, and we see layer after layer unpeel from her sense of who she is. In another, she decides she can calibrate her chemistry enough to break a pill in half, thinking she can fool people into thinking she is not high. That is when she runs into Freeman, who is at his best in that very touching moment. We see his conflicts, but he gently encourages her. What connects them transcends the pain she has caused him. It is his having been where she is that makes it impossible for her to fool him about whether she is using. Daniel and Allison are stripped down to essentials, and in its best moments, so is this movie.

Now playing in theaters. 

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