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Despair in Jersey in Zach Braff’s ‘A Good Person’

Pugh, left, and Morgan Freeman in a scene from "A Good Person." Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures via AP

All filmmakers should be so lucky to have Florence Pugh in their movies. She so consistently delivers the best version of whatever she’s handed — whether good, mediocre or downright preposterous — that you may even start to wonder if the quality of the film around her really matters in the end. It does, of course, but her performances make whatever she’s in difficult to dismiss wholly.

In Zach Braff’s “ A Good Person,” Pugh is a New Jersey 20-something named Allison whose life is upended in a flash. On her way to try on wedding dresses in the city, she's involved in an accident that leaves her future sister- and brother-in-law dead and her addicted to opioid painkillers.

Braff wrote the part specifically for her. The two dated for three years, a relationship that was scrutinized by many onlookers for their 21-year age difference, which she often defended. Last year, they quietly broke up.

In the past several years, Braff has suffered significant losses — his sister, his father, one of his best friends. He is an actor and filmmaker who has directed only four features, including his debut “Garden State,” which — however it may have aged 19 years later — was promising and captured a moment for a specific white hipster set.

Now in his mid-40s and a lifetime away from sitcom fame and indie-darling debuts, Braff still has that spark and promise. This time, he wanted to write about grief, which was the birth of “A Good Person,” an ensemble piece about tragedy, mourning, addiction, forgiveness and people who keep messing up despite their best intentions.

It takes him back to a familiar area — suburban New Jersey — and themes (aimlessness and prescription painkillers), but broadens the demographics and scope. And it is so earnestly done, with genuinely good writing and performances, that it seems unduly cruel to nitpick. But, even after reading interviews and Braff’s statements, it’s still a bit baffling why, with all his lived experience, he has chosen to tell this story about these people.

Allison is just one part of the equation. The other is her fiance Nathan (Chinaza Uche) and what remains of his family: His 10-years-sober, Vietnam veteran, cop father Daniel (Morgan Freeman) and his orphaned teenage niece Ryan (Celeste O’Connor). What would be a normal teenage rebellion has curdled under the unfathomable rage and sorrow of having suddenly lost both parents. Daniel is out of his depth trying to care for her, while Nathan is largely absent.

“A Good Person” seems to belong to a uniquely Dan Fogelman-esque subgenre of hyper sincere melodrama that sometimes clicks (“This Is Us”) and other times does not (“Life Itself”). Braff’s film is worlds better than “Life Itself,” but there are some similarities in how it strives for cosmic significance and ultimate tearjerking within a construct that the film tries to sell as authentically specific. In execution, it’s a bit more strained and contrived.

Allison is a good character for an actor. She’s one that was clearly written out of love for the woman he knew would be playing her, allowing Pugh to cry, to sing (the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours”), to be funny high and depressing high, to be delusional and selfish in one moment and relatable and true in the next.

When Allison finally decides to seek help, she ends up at the same Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as Daniel. She tries to flee, but he encourages her to stay and the two develop a tenuous friendship leading to some nice moments between Pugh and Freeman, who has his own world of regret and guilt to grapple with. This is borderline believable, but things really go off the rails (there is also a forced model train set metaphor) when Allison and Ryan develop their own ill-advised relationship.

“A Good Person” at times feels overstuffed with misery and despair, and oddly decides to fast-forward through the recovery part with a montage and a song. There are cliches (woman on the edge cutting her hair in the mirror) and curious choices (not nearly enough is made of a statutory rape incident) and a very contrived climax. Sometimes it feels like maybe this is a story that could have been better served by a series than a too-long feature (it’s telling that I haven’t even mentioned that Allison’s mom is played by Molly Shannon or that her AA sponsor is Zoe Lister-Jones).

And yet there are enough moments of grace and threads that defy the obvious cliche to keep you interested, even if you're not wholly buying or invested in every character. Who doesn’t want to be told that you’re never in too deep to start over, to apologize, to forgive or to be honest with yourself and others?

“A Good Person,” an MGM release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “drug abuse, some sexual references, language throughout.” Running time: 125 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

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