Like many movies about drug addiction that have come before, A Good Person asks for our sympathy. To my surprise, it got it without a struggle. It tells the story of Allison (Florence Pugh), a young woman who became addicted to prescription painkillers after a fatal traffic accident. Physically, she seems fine. Allison moves about normally when she chooses to and has no visible scars. Mentally, she’s in an entirely different place. She spends her days in her house with the curtains drawn, lounging around, conspiring ways to obtain a refill of her expired prescription. Her mother Diane (Molly Shannon) pops over unannounced, throws open the curtains and shrilly demands that her daughter get her act together. Nobody ever told Diane that the last thing a drug addict wants is a high-energy pep talk.
Allison storms out and bikes to the local pharmacy. No help there. She meets a former colleague who is a pharmaceutical rep and asks if she can help with free samples. Nope. Her last stop is a dive bar, where Allison meets Mark (Alex Wolff) and Diego (Brian Rojas), two deadbeats she used to go to high school with. She wouldn’t give them the time of day back then, but now, they are a means to pay for the two shots she just polished off and possibly a hit. All she has to do is say to Mark that she’s a junkie, and he’ll take care of her. That admission, while painful and degrading, isn’t as bad as I thought that scene would turn out.
Allison wasn’t exactly the girl who had everything until life took it all away, but she was close. She was engaged to the handsome and affable Nathan (Chinaza Uche), she was on her way to a wedding dress fitting when her distracted driving led to the death of her sister-in-law-to-be Molly (Nichelle Hines) and a mutual friend. Allison has convinced herself that she really wasn’t at fault for the accident, a lie she’s been feeding with a steady diet of OxyContin. In her defense, staying high is definitely preferable to admitting her role in two deaths. A Good Person makes the case that some people who become addicts are victims of circumstance first and guilt second. I’ve never been addicted to drugs but this makes sense. Nobody wakes up and decides to become an addict, unless you’re William Burroughs.
The only good thing that came from Allison’s awful mini high school reunion is that she decides to get help with her addiction. In a twist of fate that I’m a bit reluctant to reveal, Allison meets Daniel (Morgan Freeman) the father of Nathan and Molly at her first A.A. meeting. Given the nature of A Good Person I wouldn’t consider this as a spoiler. This type of movie doesn’t need surprises for it to work, a point I’ll justify shortly.
Nathan himself was an alcoholic for many years but has been sober for ten. He’s shocked to see Allison after what happened but considers their chance meeting as a sign that life is asking him to do something besides living with the tragedy. Besides, he could use some help with his granddaughter Ryan (Celeste O’Connor), who is your typical mixture of teenage hormones and rebellion. From here on out, A Good Person goes through the familiar paces of other drug addition movies, with scenes of a near suicide attempt, tearful group admissions, a relapse, fallout from the relapse that acts as the catalyst for rehab, hopeful scenes from rehab, and a resumption of life afterwards. The movie is not an original take on drug addiction like Requiem for a Dream, a remarkably frank and horrific depiction of what usually happens to people who go down that road. Instead, it follows the template of the genre to the letter, a result that will only disappoint those who chose to mischaracterize the genre of movie they are watching.
Written and directed by Zach Braff, A Good Person hits most, if not all of the notes as I would expect of a drug addiction and recovery movie. Calling it predictable or formulaic is really besides the point because that is what makes this genre compelling in the first place. Audiences watch these movies because they know what to expect going in, not because they are expecting shocking plot twists. Drug addiction movies are cathartic experiences that appeal to audiences at a primal, emotional level. Some would dismissively call a movie like this a melodrama, but I prefer tearjerker. Pugh and Freeman deliver naturalistic performances that are uniformly solid and occasionally excellent. Their characters are always relatable and I couldn’t help but sympathize with them. Braff’s screenplay provides them with dialog that always felt honest and lived in. He also does a fine job in the director’s chair, although there were moments when the material would have hit harder without a visual flourish or indie musical cue. As it stands, Braff does well by keeping things grounded and not going overboard, an easy trap to fall into with this genre. A Good Person isn’t one of the best drug addict movies I’ve seen, but it’s good enough. Mildly Recommended.
I read a negative review of A Good Person before seeing the movie. As a rule, I usually avoid reading reviews of movies I’m planning to see. I realize how counterintuitive that sounds, a movie critic not reading reviews ahead of time. I prefer having an open mind about a movie before I write about it, so that another critic’s judgment doesn’t influence my opinion. In the case of this movie, I broke my own rule for reasons I can’t explain. I suppose the snarky tagline made the review irresistible. You know what curiosity does to cats.
The critic (who shall remain nameless) compared Allison’s journey out of drug addiction as being akin to the Catholic Stations of Cross. If you are familiar with Catholicism, you will immediately know what the critic meant with that analogy. If you are not, the Stations of the Cross are pictures that document the final moments of Christ’s life. They begin with Christ being condemned to die of crucifixion and end with his body being placed in the sepulcher. By using this comparison, the critic was stating that A Good Person covers very familiar ground. On that point I agree; the movie will be very familiar to anyone who has seen a few other movies that focus on drug addiction and recovery. I don’t see that as a problem, however. In the case of a movie like A Good Person, it’s actually a positive.
Drug addiction movies are a strange genre, in that they follow a nearly identical list of plot beats. (I created a handy list below.) Occasionally, there will be an outlier like Requiem for a Dream that does something radical, like showing how drugs win and addicts lose decisively. For the most part, drug addiction movies don’t break the mold, and that is the reason for their appeal. Audiences know what they are signing up for when they see these movies. They want to watch a hero (or heroine) fall from grace and put their lives back together. In other words, drug addiction movies are redemption narratives, stories built with a familiar structure that date as far back as St. Augustine’s Confessions (published around 400 AD), if not further.
Movies based on drug addiction have been around for over one-hundred years, and they will keep being made because they provide exactly what the audience expects. This holds true for A Good Person, a movie that wisely follows the template instead of veering off into uncharted waters and sinking. The protagonist starts out in a good place, is laid low due to a tragedy, becomes addicted to drugs, bottoms out and ultimately pulls themselves together. Going into this movie, I knew going in that I would be put through a series of predefined emotional setpieces. Pitying the character over what they do to get more drugs. Anger over how they treat their loved ones. Sadness when they relapse. Hope when they decide to get clean. Happiness when they do. This is, as I mentioned above, familiar territory, but this genre of movies offers the audience an emotionally cathartic experience that few other genres do. On this front, A Good Person was successful.
Equally important for a movie like A Good Person to work is solid and convincing acting. Of the few drug addiction movies I’ve seen, performances that stand out include Michael Keaton in Clean and Sober (1988) and Paul Newman in The Hustler (1961). In both cases, the actors portray the stages of drug addiction convincingly and realistically. They never oversell the material, which is critical. If the performances by Pugh and Freeman weren’t authentic, there is zero chance that the audience would empathize with either of their characters. Thankfully, that is not the case.
A Good Person benefits tremendously by having two great actors take us through the paces. Florence Pugh is very convincing as Allison, a person who chooses drug addiction over admitting that she’s responsible for the death of two people. You could describe her performance as de-glammed, but I prefer relatable or down-to-earth. Morgan Freeman is as great as he’s ever been as Daniel, the father of one of Allison’s victims. No other actor alive can deliver his affecting combination of wounded dignity. Kudos to Zach Braff for being able to tap him for a significant role like this in his project.
I suspect that the reason why actors like Pugh and Freeman are attracted to roles about drug addicts (recovering or otherwise) is that the part lets them portray a wide range of emotions. A role like Allison lets Florence Pugh flex her acting muscles on a daily basis. (Well, more than she got to do in The Wonder.) Like the best performances in this genre, Pugh keeps things contained and grounded. Whether Allison is high, suffering withdrawals or sober, Pugh never loses her grip on the character. She also ensures that her character’s personality is present in every situation so that we accept it as the same character in a different emotional state. For Allison, it’s her sly bordering on devious sense of humor. There’s also a tinge of reluctance that comes through in her behavior, subtly affecting every decision she makes. Pugh sells her character’s complexity throughout the film, and it’s one of her best performances.
People have accused A Good Person of being a melodrama, which according to the Oxford dictionary is a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions. Based on that, I wouldn’t characterize the movie as a melodrama. I found all of the performances in the movie to be realistic and believable. I never got the impression once that Pugh or Freeman were overacting. Molly Shannon’s performance as Allison’s mother Diane was a little grating, but that was intentional.
Instead, I would classify A Good Person as a tearjerker. Yes, even though I knew what was coming every step of the way, I couldn’t help but feel emotional on cue. There are many scenes in the movie that affected me so I’ll only list a few here:
- Allison tells a former high school classmate that she’s a junkie so that he will help her get high.
- Allison attends a support group meeting sober and suffering withdrawals.
- Allison meets lunch with Ryan and learns that her former fiance has been seeing someone else for six months.
- Daniel tells Allison that his father didn’t meet him at the train station when he arrived home from Vietnam.
- Daniel tells Allison that her carelessness is the reason for the car accident that caused his daughter’s death.
- Allison reads Daniel’s final letter.
- Allison tells Jesse that she knows about Daniel’s abusive treatment of his son.
Pugh and Freeman’s acting is so moving that to describe the movie as melodrama is a result of either not caring or not paying attention. There is nothing inherently wrong with a three hanky film or a weeper. Why this kind of movie gets a bad rap these days I can only guess.
Another odd complaint from the same critical review was how Zach Braff wrote the movie specifically for Pugh while they were romantically linked. First of all, so what? That bit of knowledge, while factual, has no bearing on the movie itself. Honestly, if a person seeing this movie has a problem with Braff, I’m convinced they would pan the movie if it was The Lost Weekend. If a critic choses to review a movie based on things that are not in the movie, that is their choice I guess. It reveals a mind that is not open to engaging with what they are seeing, which is an odd trait for a person who reviews movies to have.
Second, the critic has either a short memory or is not as well-versed in cinema as they believe. Off the top of my head I can think of two very well-known directors who directed their significant others in their films. There’s Gena Rowlands and her husband, John Cassavetes. Also noteworthy is Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. I don’t bring this up as a way of saying that A Good Person is at the same level of filmmaking as A Woman Under the Influence or The Lady from Shanghai. It isn’t. But the idea that a movie somehow deserves to be criticized harshly just because the director and his star were a couple when the movie was made is nonsense.
The Drug Addiction Movie Stations of the Cross
Scenes from their happy life before addiction.
Their frantic search in their home/apartment after running out of drugs.
Treating family, friends and neighbors badly while trying to obtain drugs.
Debasing themselves for drugs.
Tearful confessions to a support group.
The inevitable relapse, triggered by facing reality.
Trippy scenes where they are high, scored to downbeat music and filmed with camera tricks.
The near suicide attempt by overdose.
The inevitable fallout from their relapse, which affects others badly.
Committing to getting clean.
Time spent in rehab.
Come to terms with why they became addicted in the first place.
The post-addiction aftermath. Not happy, but finally at peace.