Grounded by an emotionally vulnerable performance from superstar Nick Jonas, dramedy The Good Half realistically explores the complicated stages of grieving a parent. As someone whose mother passed away in 2020, The Good Half resonated with me in more ways than I can say. It is not easy to even put into words how different you feel after losing your mother. As Jonas’s lead Renn says in the film, life has been squarely divided into “the good half” before she got sick, and “the shitty half,” or everything after. Written out of wish fulfillment from personal experience, screenwriter Brett Ryland exposes a deeply raw topic with zesty dark-comedy panache. Toss in a great Elisabeth Shue as Renn’s mother, and The Good Half is already exploding with talent before even dipping toes into the work of its stellar ensemble.
The film begins with the first glimmer of a memory—a young Renn (Mason Cufari), perfectly cast with curls and all, has just been scooped up by his mother, Lily, after she accidentally forgot him at the mall. She pinky-promises to never leave Renn again. In present day, emotionally distant Renn travels home from L.A. to Cleveland entirely disconnected from what he is doing. His shaggy locks and scruff help paint an entire portrait of Renn before we even hear him speak. Renn’s sister, Leigh (Brittany Snow), keeps calling, and he just lets it ring. On the flight over, Renn meets Zoey (Alexandra Shipp) as the two flirt between a snoring man sandwiched in the middle. Zoey, a therapist headed to Cleveland for a work conference, constantly drops references to movies. Renn deflects most of her deeper questions, but does admit he loves dogs, and British pop music.
By the time they land in rainy Cleveland, Renn is already offering up his number, just in case Zoey may need “restaurant recommendations.” This marks the first of many times Renn takes solace in hanging out with Zoey. Shipp plays Zoey as a free spirit, always willing to listen, and incredibly supportive. Renn’s family is another story. The elephant in the room between cold Leigh and Renn seems evident from their very first scene together. His father Darren (Matt Walsh) offers up booze—he admits to literally googling “how to console a loved one.” The less said about Renn’s stepdad, Rick (David Arquette), the better. He pretty much ghosted Lily the second she got her cancer diagnosis, even though they have technically been together on paper for fifteen years. To call the interactions between Renn and Rick tense would be a massive understatement. Renn begins rebuilding his core familial relationships while home.
Brett Ryland’s script goes quite dark, yet always has humor floating atop. Renn is forced to navigate the cacophony of responsibilities that come with a parent dying. Who will pay for the funeral? Why aren’t her wishes of being cremated being respected? Why are they forced to speak with a priest to make a eulogy when Lily was Jewish? Renn’s sarcasm traces the ridiculousness of the process while he continues to have trouble emerging from the shell of his own grief. He compares paying for a funeral to paying for an Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion, and grins slyly over the prospect of selecting a casket from a “casket showroom.” The viewer waits in anticipation for the moment when his mother’s egregious loss will finally hit Renn for that cathartic release. When it does eventually arrive, I had difficulty not openly sobbing amongst the sold out crowd at BMCC’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center.
Specificity about Renn’s mother follows him like a haunting specter. She loved to steal little espresso cups and spoons from restaurants. She had steadfast rules after her diagnosis about not making things weird. She also definitely had a favorite child in Renn. Elisabeth Shue has limited scenes, yet makes the most of her screentime, and has real chemistry with Jonas. I believed this bond, feeling it in every lush closeup. Director Robert Schwartzman peppers Shue’s scenes throughout—the impact of her role lingers in the air of each exchange. On an entirely separate note, it was also fun to spot actual younger photos of Nick Jonas adorned in random places. No sign of brothers Joe, Kevin, or Frankie, though.
What spoke to me here was the way Renn approaches the death. He is almost numb to it, not digesting its reality. Grief is weird—even when it seems like it won’t hit you, sometimes it randomly does. The worst part is that you literally can’t even control how it’s going to hit you: it just happens. There is no right or wrong way to process a death this severe other than simply feeling the loss and emptiness. At one point, Renn discloses that he keeps waiting for a text or call from his mother. Even almost three years after her passing, I still wait for the same texts from my own mother. I found myself relating to Renn so much. I often use humor in the same way, as a glove to catch my insecurities. A moment when Renn flips through his mother’s half-filled planner, realizing she will never again write in its pages, felt lifted straight from my life.
For those wondering if Jonas embraces his musical roots, he does get a tender karaoke moment where he covers Modern English’s classic “I Melt With You.” Perhaps what impressed me the most about this dramedy other than a career-best performance from Jonas is that it wrapped just four months ago. That is an absolutely insane turn-around to debut at a film festival, and seems more akin to TV scheduling. That The Good Half ends up even halfway as deeply emotional, especially for someone who has lost a parent, is a marvel. Nick Jonas is in every frame, imbuing sharp wit into his character, Renn. A contemplative tearjerker with stellar performances and excellent writing to match, The Good Half hits hard. In the end, the message that things eventually do get just a little easier feels like an important one. Even when the ones we love are gone, we can continue to honor their memories the only way we know how. Whether that means a little light breaking and entering, the imprint they leave on us can never be diminished.
The Good Half screened at 2023’s Tribeca Film Festival.