'Four Good Days': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
All crash, no high.

Glenn Close stars as a mother trying to get her drug-addicted daughter, played by Mila Kunis, over a crucial recovery hurdle in Rodrigo Garcia's empathetic fact-based drama.

Rodrigo Garcia's history with female-centric drama makes the director a smooth fit for Four Good Days, starring his frequent collaborator Glenn Close as a mother whose trust has been broken by years of lying, stealing, debasement and heartbreak from her junkie daughter, played by Mila Kunis. Of course, in order for there to be a story, the addict must be given another chance, and the title refers to the fraught period she needs to stay clean in order to qualify for a treatment that might save her. Persuasively acted, compassionately observed and thoroughly unsurprising, this is well-intentioned material that never quite gets beyond its inspired-by-a-true-story, issue-driven TV movie-of-the-week template.

While Kunis' character, Molly, has long ago expanded her intake from painkillers to heroin, crack and whatever else she can get her trembling hands on, opioid use disorder is at the root of this drama, which was based on a Washington Post article by Garcia's co-writer Eli Saslow and on the real-life story of that piece's subjects, Amanda Wendler and Libby Alexander.

Echoing recent news headlines about Big Pharma being put on notice that executives could be held criminally accountable for feeding America's opioid addiction epidemic, Close's bitterly careworn Deb more than once points an accusatory finger at medical professionals for starting her daughter on prescription Oxy with unlimited refills to treat a high school injury. But Garcia is more interested in the personal drama than the bigger-picture social commentary, which puts Four Good Days in the same field as other recent films about grieving yet stubbornly hopeful parents going through the agonizing process of steering their children toward recovery, like Beautiful Boy and Ben Is Back.

What those films and others like them have in common is the earnest stamp of public service, of reaching out to families living through similar situations to show they're not alone.

There have been memorable exceptions over the years, like Requiem for a Dream, which made its immersive dive into drug culture a harrowingly hallucinatory horror movie; Drugstore Cowboy, both candid and contemplative in its depiction of transient junkies; Rachel Getting Married, which found an exquisite balance of Chekhovian comedy and drama in the fallout from the sister of the bride's addiction issues; or the Safdie brothers' Heaven Knows What, a grittily textured odyssey of druggy New York street life that paid homage to the 1971 classic, The Panic in Needle Park.

But for the most part, recent drug movies are a thankless drag. Or a showy vehicle for actors to give hold-nothing-back performances frequently lauded as "brave."

Molly is well past rock-bottom by the time she turns up on the doorstep of Deb and her second husband Chris (Stephen Root) after more than a decade of hardcore addiction and 14 unsuccessful stints in rehab. She's glimpsed at the start of the movie in happier times, a wholesome brunette teenager laughing on a beach. (That image is mirrored later in the movie in the unsubtle metaphor of — spoiler alert! — a long-incomplete jigsaw puzzle finally revealed to be a seaside sunset.) But now Molly looks like hell — emaciated, her hair a dirty bottle blonde and green rat's nest, her skin a mess, her hands attempting to hide a toothless mouth riddled with gum disease.

Deb has heard Molly's insincere vows to clean up too many times to let her into her safe suburban home, and Chris assures her she's making the right decision. But her hardened detachment only lasts so long once Molly camps out shivering in her driveway. Deb agrees to help so far as checking her into a detox facility, but her maternal love keeps her awake nights, imagining Molly wracked with pain from head to toe.

When her three days covered by insurance are up, Molly is informed by a doctor that the statistical evidence of relapses is against her, and her best shot at lasting recovery is a monthly injection of naltrexone, a chemical opiate antagonist that makes getting high impossible. The catch is that her system must be drug-free for a full week in order to avoid dangerous side-effects, so for four more days she needs to be somewhere not alone and away from other users. Enter Mom.

While much of Garcia and Saslow's script lifts directly from the latter's article about Wendler and Alexander's experience, the dramatic beats feel awfully familiar. Molly initially is surly and resentful, albeit with flickers of shame when confronted with evidence of her worst crimes over the years. Deb patiently reminds her, "This is a disease, it's not you." A reunion with Molly's two children is awkward at first as they look at her like a stranger, but she loosens them up as Grandma looks on with hawk-eyed vigilance.

The attempt to tap into the pain of authentic experience is undermined here and there by overly "written" passages, notably when Molly, after claiming to have no gift for public speaking, addresses a class of her former high school coach's students with a fiercely articulate emotional outpouring. Similarly, Chris (a mostly thankless role for Root) has a big speech about the futility of looking for the cause of Molly's addiction or of Deb's possible role in triggering it.

The brushes with danger when Molly insists on going back to her old turf to help a troubled teen add urgency to the drama, as do the eleventh-hour hiccups as she gets closer to her first naltrexone shot. But this is a movie that's more efficient than emotionally affecting, a factor underlined by the heavy-handed use of Edward Shearmur's pensive score dominated by tinkling piano.

Neither of the lead performances stint on commitment, and yet there's nothing terribly revelatory about them. Kunis bounces between broken and belligerent, gradually forging a fragile path into the light, and Close, stuck in a matronly wig and bougie canasta-club makeup, spends most of the movie with the same clenched jaw and wide-eyed anxiety, punctuated by outbursts of sobbing or rage. There's a palpable sense here that everyone believes they're making a powerful drama about the limitless sacrifices of parental love. But Four Good Days is more like 99 routine minutes.

Production companies: Indigenous Media, Oakhurst Entertainment, Productivity Media
Cast: Glenn Close, Mila Kunis, Stephen Root, Joshua Leonard, Sam Hennings, Michael Hyatt, Carla Gallo, Nicholas Oteri, Audrey Lynn, Carlos Lacamara, Rebecca Field, Nina Millin, Brian Shortall, Rebecca Tilney, Gloria Garavua, Chad Lindberg, Gabriella Flores, Mandy June Turpin, Kim Delgado
Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Screenwriters: Eli Saslow, Rodrigo Garcia, based on a Washington Post article by Saslow and inspired by Amanda Wendler and Libby Alexander
Producers: Jon Avnet, Marina Grasic, Jake Avnet, Jai Khanna, Rodrigo Garcia
Executive producers: Sage Scroope, William Santor, John Hills, Andrew Chang-Sang, Doug Murray, John Griffith, David Haring, Christian Mercuri, Ruzanna Kegeyan
Director of photography: Igor Jadue-Lillo
Production designer: Brandon Mendez
Costume designer: Michele Michel
Music: Edward Shearmur
Editor: Lauren Connelly
Casting: Veronica Collins Rooney
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Sales: CAA/Endeavor Content

99 minutes