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The Price of Self Reflection

The Price of Self Reflection

"The Worst Ones" and "A Good Person" push back against the Hollywood message movie; it’s why no one’s heard of them.

In this year’s edition of his annual “Midyear ReckoningNational Review film critic and infamous contrarian Armond White called 2023 the year of the French cinematic revolution. “The prospect of Western civilization hanging by a thread is strongly suggested by this year’s French imports, which echo the cultural confusions tearing the U.S. apart, except that French filmmakers deal with those social and personal issues without falling back on partisan talking points,” White wrote.

With the fall movie season’s promise of cinematic bounty and Oscar bait mere weeks away, it seems par for the course that, with the exception of a few surprises (The Starling Girl, Air) and titles too big to fail (Asteroid City and Barbienheimer), the American cinema’s recent offerings have been downright anemic. 

The most curious aspect of 2023’s cinematic output isn’t that French cinema is on firmer ground than the rest of the west (that’s been a given barring the occupation years), but that the French are making films immersed in the identity politics that has obsessed Hollywood long before the summer of Floyd. Two of White’s French standouts–Saint Omer and Tori and Lokita–both deal with the fragmentation innate to the postcolonial migrant experience.

The former is a courtroom drama detailing a female Senegalese grad student’s infanticide, the latter a story of two undocumented children that melds Dickens and the docudrama. Despite all apparent pitfalls, they are as refreshingly free of contrived martyrs as they are of topical political commentary, more interested in investigating the systems too inadequate to deal with realities that pundits either meticulously ignore or clumsily vilify. 

Nevertheless, both films ended up as destination arthouse releases in the States last winter. With film fest staples Alice Diop and the Dardenne Brothers respectively at their helms, they catered to the same audiences who browbeat Everything Everywhere All At Once to Oscar glory–even if their target demo was so enamored with the skin color and poverty of the protagonists that it failed to pick up on the nuance. 

The French may continue to dominate the international cinema front, but such nationalistic analysis seems an ineffective way of talking about a transnational medium. A French film that cuts too close for the establishment’s comfort faces the same fate as an Amazon release that rips apart the type of washed-out misery business at the center of Hollywood’s prestige obsession. Such is why Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret’s French docudrama The Worst Ones and actor-director Zack Braff’s A Good Person came and went from theaters last spring in a matter of days. 

Mallory Wanecque, left, and Timéo Mahau in The Worst Ones. (Credit: Kino Lorber)

When The Worst Ones premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, it won the grand prize in the “Un Certain Regard” category, a competition designed to recognize emerging talent from all over the world. Though it is only the second French film to win the award since its introduction in 1998 and has maintained a perfect critical score on Rotten Tomatoes, it did not receive a release for over a year and has yet to be picked up by a streaming service. As a result, the film has not reached the critical mass of viewers necessary to earn a Rotten Tomatoes audience rating–even one that differs wildly from its critical score like those of its aforementioned French predecessors that White commended. 

Much of this neglect likely stems from Akoka and Gueret’s refusal to prescribe a solution for the social ills central to the film. The Worst Ones follows Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh), a middle-aged filmmaker who has finally gained enough clout to make his feature debut after toiling at the margins of the film industry. Striving for authenticity, he adopts the Italian Neorealist schtick of seeking out nonprofessional actors to give his searing social drama the sense of authenticity it deserves. It’s a personal, uncompromising film for Gabriel–though his connection to Picasso City in the suburb of Boulogne-sur-Mer, or any other impoverished neighborhood seems tenuous. 

But no matter, he’s found his future superstars. Lily (Mallory Wanecque) is a pseudo-promiscuous preteen who performs sexual experience as a way to cope with the death of her brother after a prolonged struggle with cancer. Poverty porn posterboy Ryan (Timéo Mahaut) struggles with ADHD and an inability to perform at school that’s only heightened due to the custody battle between his mother and sister. There’s also Maylis (Mélina Vanderplancke), a sexually confused tomboy and perpetual target of neighborhood bullies. If this band of outsiders sounds like a cherry-picked cast designed to cater to the worst stereotypes of the urban poor, it is. That’s why the residents of Picasso City grow concerned about this director on the rise’s motivations for picking “the worst ones” in their community.

Rather than present the stark reality of France’s least affluent neighborhoods, the film prefers to focus on the class disparities between the residents and the interloping artists who have come to profit off of them. Ryan’s ADHD and trauma get worse, not least of all because Garbriel knows him well enough to manipulate the other actors into exploiting the boy’s triggers so he can capture the results. In one of the movie’s most harrowing sequences, he instructs a group of bullies to insult Ryan’s mother, which sets him off just like the brawl he instigated that almost got him expelled in real life. Lily shows some real talent, but her friends grow jealous of her–starting rumors of a sexual relationship with Gabriel that’s all too easy to believe thanks to the filmmaker’s ego and cavalier fraternizing with his ingénue off camera. 

If The Worst One’s intent was merely to call foul on the creative class, it would have all the heft of a Daily Wire comedy sketch about those degenerates in Hollywood. But, as much respect as it shows its characters, it never absolves any of them for their sins. Gabriel may be a fraud, but he’s a sincere one who knows deep down his work is nowhere near as good as his authoritative voice (the film ingeniously holds back the reveal of the finale of his magnum opus until the final shots—a Eurotrash magical realist exercise in excess that comes off like Wim Wenders directing a Netflix holiday romcom). But at least he’s trying. None of these kids make the right choices as they put their hopes in stardom to deliver them from their own lack of personal responsibility in a world that didn’t do them any favors. 

Akoka and Gueret refuse to deny their own complicity as well. They shot on location in this suburb. They also used nonactors and had to navigate the residents’ worries of exploitation. And as the ethical dilemmas and problems of agency remain unresolved, the filmmaking team reaches the heights of great art because they know they can never claim to even come close to the answers.

The last American director that springs to mind who would seem capable of–much less interested in–making a companion piece to Akoka and Gueret’s meditation on regional representation is Zack Braff. After all, the former Scrubs star set indie filmmaking back ten years with his 2004 directorial debut Garden State, ensuring that every soundtrack for a Sundance film would feature a Shins knock off and unleashing the lamentable “manic pixie dream girl” onto the radars of budding outrange mongers.

It would not be stretch to say one could trace every “___ is problematic” Medium tirade and tweet about the Bechdel Test right to that scene in Garden State where Braff, Natalie Portman, and Peter Sarsgaard scream away their anxieties into a rain-soaked canyon to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” (we got The Graduate parallel, but Braff’s no Dustin Hoffman–much less Mike Nichols).

Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman in A Good Person. (Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

However, with A Good Person, Braff not only proves himself a formidable filmmaker, but utterly demolishes the self-involved quirkiness that has long been his hallmark. In the lead up to its release, the film looked like a project made primarily to allow Braff to show the world that, during those rough pandemic years, he was dating Florence Pugh and not just hocking for T-Mobile. Pugh has thus far shown a knack for being the best thing about her movies, even making dreck as self-important as Don’t Worry Darling watchable; the film’s middling but higher-than-expected 58% rotten score seemed entirely due to her heavy lifting. However, those who happened to see the film during a theatrical run that grossed a paltry $2.2 million experienced the surprise of the movie-going year (just look at that glowing Rotten Tomatoes audience score).

Pugh’s Allison Johnson is a pharmaceutical rep who has sidelined her dreams of being a singer because the money is good enough for her to escape the working-class Jersey suburb her mom (Molly Shannon) barely kept them in during the aughts’ economic downturns. Buying into the promise of reconciling the upper middle class with the hipster millennial streak she just can’t shake, Allison is on the cusp of marrying the charismatic Nathan (Chinaza Uche). But when Allison glances at Google Maps in a Manhattan traffic jam on the way to try on her wedding dress with her future sister-in-law and her husband, she causes an accident that leaves her the sole survivor. Unable to cope with the guilt, she sinks into herself, trading her relationship and career for the opioids her long stint in the hospital left her hooked on. With nowhere to turn, she has a chance encounter at an AA meeting with Nathan’s father, Daniel (Morgan Freeman), who is left raising his orphaned granddaughter, Ryan (Celeste O’Johnson). 

The best decision Braff has ever made as a director is to take himself out of the leading role. A Good Person could have easily been a spiritual sequel to Garden State in which the local boy who made good deigned to visit his square hometown, failed to hide his contempt for these bottom feeders, and met the adorable girl who would solve all his problems. Instead, Braff refocuses his story from a sad sack finding himself to a guilt-riddled woman who self-destructs to avoid accepting responsibility.

From the beginning, Braff makes Allison hard to like. She’s that urbanite in-crowdeer from high school you didn’t know masked her status anxiety whose tailored suit hauls and RBG quotes on Facebook make her the one to avoid during Thanksgiving weekend. And, if her recklessness hadn’t resulted in the deaths of an African–American couple, she most assuredly would have spent the summer of 2020 constantly reminding us all that Black Lives Matter. 

However, thanks to Pugh’s fully realized character work, the film makes us feel uncomfortably like Allison, one left-field tragedy away from residing in a hole with too much despair to ever think about getting out. Braff hasn’t helmed the Jersey version of Winter’s Bone or a prestige ensemble drama like Dopesick. He’s made an emotional and often hilarious movie about the thirty-something in the J. Crew parking lot popping pills before drinks with the girls. 

And he’s done so without judgment. A Good Person is not a Big Pharma thinkpiece or of-the-moment drama that could brandish its own mid-credits QR code. It’s a movie about imperfect people willing to change by embracing responsibility all while never presenting forgiveness as easy. Braff has abandoned his indie affectation for a keen interest in moral weight. Allison left Nathan without a sister, Daniel without a daughter, and Ryan without parents, but each must also carry the burden of their own mistakes.

Daniel’s years as an abusive alcoholic cop frayed his relationships with his children, which makes his mourning all the worse. A Good Person offers a world of characters trying to do the right thing in lives gone wrong by their own making. It doesn't blame amorphous structural problems or consider them unsolvable, but it does show that we are all culpable and have a mandate to understand that our actions and lives are not as insular as we think they are. 

To paraphrase White, the greatest threat to a thriving popular culture is not woke gestures or censorship but a consensus that the cinema of talking points is the best we can do. It’s as easy to deride the latest white savior flick as it is difficult to criticize a film that steadfastly follows every one of the Academy’s new diversity guidelines. But making a movie that exposes both as nothing more than cynical posturing has the makings of an actual culture war. Fortunately, we have a few filmmakers left willing to fight it.

The Worst Ones is available for digital rental.

A Good Person is available to stream on Amazon Prime.