In the nearly ten years since Braff wrote and directed Wish I Was Here, he has mostly moved away from this idiosyncratic style, directing (but not writing) 2017’s Going in Style, starring Michael Caine, Freeman, and Alan Arkin, and working in television, directing episodes of Ted Lasso and Shrink—frankly, perfect shows for Braff to try and hone his style and tone. With A Good Person, Braff returns to writing with a film that feels sort of like a combination of these two periods in his work, as he tells two stories in his latest film that work fine separately, but flourish when brought together.
Florence Pugh stars as Allison, a pharmaceutical rep who is getting married to Nathan (Dickinson’s Chinaza Uche). Allison takes Nathan’s sister and her partner into New York City to look at wedding dresses, and after looking at her phone’s map for a second, she gets in a crash that kills the couple. Soon after, we meet Daniel (Freeman), a former police officer who is taking his granddaughter Ryan (Celeste O’Connor) to school, when he receives a call that his daughter and her daughter’s partner have died in this car crash.
Cut to a year later, and Allison is still struggling to deal with the repercussions of the crash. She broke things off with Nathan and has been doing a whole lot of nothing, living with her mother Diane (Molly Shannon), and taking OxyContin to ease her physical and emotional pain. When Diane takes her pills away, Allison has to reckon with the fact that she’s a junkie who needs something to ease her suffering. Similarly, Daniel has been raising Ryan since her mother’s death, and with Ryan acting out in school and having sex with a boy far too old for her, it’s been a lot to deal with. Nathan is an alcoholic who has been sober for a decade, yet the stress of his situation has made him really want a drink.
After realizing she has a problem, Allison goes to a support group, where she runs into Daniel. He pleads for her to stay, realizing she has problems of her own, and states that it’s a sign that they’re together at the same meeting. As the two seek help, they start to form something close to a friendship, as they both continue to deal with the loss and pain in their lives.
While A Good Person is by no means “quirky” in its approach to substance abuse, Allison’s side of the story feels more in line with Braff’s first two films, as Allison only rides a bike around the suburbs of New Jersey, often draped in her robe. But Nathan’s story reminds more of Braff’s work in the last decade: restrained, mostly without the notes that one has come to expect from him. It’s an interesting balance to watch Braff play with, as if he’s attempting to show his maturity, while also trying to be more reserved with the side of things that inherently feels more of his style.
Yet it’s when Braff unites these two sides that A Good Person really soars, as we see Allison attempt to make penance for her actions, while Nathan does his best to move past the incident that changed his life. Both Pugh and Freeman are doing wonderful work, but when they’re together, we can see the push-and-pull that both are dealing with when they’re with each other, a desperate attempt to move forward by confronting their past, no matter how difficult that can be.
But it’s the odd choices sprinkled throughout A Good Person that makes this story occasionally feel off or unrealistic, despite its heavy subject matter. For example, we early on meet Allison and Nathan at their engagement party, and watching these two together and with their friends has an awkward tone to it that seems like Braff not knowing how to present these characters until after the tragedy strikes. A Good Person defines these characters by their pain, and while that’s not necessarily a damning issue, in these opening moments, we see that on the page, that pain is really all there is to these characters.
Another unusual scene late in the film finds Allison, Daniel, and Ryan at a party, and Braff is so focused on getting us to the party that he’s forgotten to explain why so many other characters from this cast just happen to find this location as well, popping up without any rationale. Again, these aren’t moments that ruin what Braff is going for, and we can tell that the intention is good, it’s just the execution is shaggy at times in a way that can take the viewer out of what is supposed to be a heartbreaking, emotional experience.
Led by two solid performances by Pugh and Freeman, A Good Person shows growth from Braff as both a writer and director, as he attempts to push himself into a more mature story that we’re used to from him. It’s not a bad look for Braff, and it makes one wish that he’d write and direct his own films more than just once a decade. Braff’s tiny worlds of his own creation are starting to feel real, and it’s a welcome change.
A Good Person opens in limited release on March 24, and opens wide on March 31.