Justin Etheredge’s directorial debut Good is a flawed but frequently intriguing production.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Austin Film Festival.)
Diners can be such inviting places. Maybe it’s just the smell of breakfast being cooked; maybe it’s the laidback ambiance of those places. Maybe it’s rose-colored memories from not eating in one in a while. But diners have always struck me as one of the coziest kinds of eateries. That enticing nature of diners makes it the perfect place for Good to start its story. Payton Poiter (Justin Etheredge, who also directs) is grabbing a bite to eat when he catches the attention of the elderly Gregory Deveraux (Keith David), and the two exchange some friendly words before departing back to their separate worlds.
For Poiter, this means returning to his fiancée, Shannon (Kali Racquel), while dealing with the fact that he might have gotten childhood sweetheart Jenetta (Christen Roberts) pregnant. As if all that weren’t enough to deal with, Poiter soon has a new job to tackle. You see, Poiter and Deveraux meet up again at the diner. After their conversation, Deveraux allows Poiter to take him home. This accomplishment leads Deveraux’s daughter Barbara (Nefetari Spencer) to hire Poiter as her father’s new caretaker. It’s not an easy job, but Poiter can make good money doing it. Who knows? Maybe Deveraux even has some pearls of wisdom to share.
The earliest scenes of Good are also its best, where the focus of the story leans on everyday interactions between Poiter and Deveraux. As the two characters adjust to each other, their dynamic proves entertaining but also realistic. An exchange between the two where Deveraux keeps mishearing Poiter imitating the “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” line from In The Heat of the Night or Poiter struggling to get Deveraux to eat an omelet are especially good examples of this.
With Deveraux, David is playing an old man so cantankerous he makes Carl Fredrickson look like Mr. Rogers. Deveraux could have easily been an oversized caricature that grates on your nerves. But in the hands of David, there’s a lived-in quality to Deveraux’s frustration. You can feel years of experience informing his sullen nature. To boot, David makes Deveraux just intimidating enough that the sudden flashes of vulnerability (like the character being overcome by a violent cough) really sting.
The earliest scenes of Good are also its best
Of course, Good can’t just stick to misheard movie quotes and omelets for its runtime. Soon, Poiter must deal with his problems, which is where Good begins to unravel. As Poiter navigates his next steps, the screenplay by Etheredge (who also directs) trades casual intimacy for a barrage of melodrama. Nary a scene goes by without some grand declaration or Earth-shattering revelation.
Some of Good’s major plot turns fare better than others. For instance, Etheredge allows Poiter’s indecisiveness in being a parent to be appropriately messy. Informed by his own largely absent father, Poiter goes back-and-forth on whether he wants to be in his kid’s life. Does he want to avoid being an absent presence like his own father or does he feel like the kid would be better off without him?
Unfortunately, too much of Good’s onslaught of drama feels hurried rather than measured. As a result, too much of the second act registers as empty melodrama rather than meaningful turning points in Poiter’s life. In trying to juggle all these developments, the characters suffer mightily. This is particularly true of Barbara and Jenetta, who come off as obstacles rather than fleshed-out human beings.
Worst of all, though, is how Ehteredge puts the central friendship between Poiter and Deveraux on the backburner. Poiter and Deveraux spend much of the second half of Good apart, which deprives audiences of the rapport that buoyed the first half. David still gets moments to shine as a performer even when he’s flying solo; a scene where Deveraux confronts his daughter on being distant proves especially memorable. Still, David and Etheredge work so well as a duo, and their individual stories aren’t interesting enough to justify their separation.
Good pulls it back together in its final minutes, as Etheredge trades out big showcases of emotion for more intimate depictions of woe and indecision. Key developments for Poiter are drawn-out, which makes me wonder whether this kind of momentum could have been maintained for the whole thing. But in these closing moments, Etheridge shows an admirable willingness to explore heady material in his directorial debut.
Even when absent, fathers can still leave a mark on their children’s lives, and Good explores this with refreshing candor. While the plot is often as hurried as a diner staff during the lunch rush, there’s a sense of compelling humanity that makes it as inviting as the eateries we all miss right now.
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