Four: LAFF Review

This feature adaptation of Christopher Shinn’s stage play gains little from transformation to the screen.

Wendell Pierce leads a cast of four characters in romantic turmoil seeking redemption on a summer night.

Four characters seeking connection on the Fourth of July form opposing dyads in writer-director Joshua Sanchez’s feature debut. Despite an edgy premise, Four is beset by superficial plotting and a problematic degree of equivocating moral relativism. Although festival play is assured, commercial prospects appear dodgy.

Sullen suburban teenager June (Emory Cohen) skips out on a holiday family barbecue for a clandestine rendezvous with middle-aged husband and dad Joe (Wendell Pierce), a mild-mannered Internet predator who encountered June online. Their awkward meeting leads to a long night of driving around as Joe attempts to persuade the young man that hooking up with him might actually be a good idea.

Meanwhile, Joe’s teenage daughter Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) flirts over the phone with homeboy Dexter (E.J. Bonilla), assuming her father is out if town on a business trip. Although Dexter’s intentions are fairly clear, Abigayle isn’t sure she wants any part of them until they meet so he can work his debatable charms in person. A trip back to his crib – shared with his entire family – leads to a predictable denouement, as Joe successfully persuades June that they should get a motel room.

Adapting Obie-winner Christopher Shinn’s stage play, Sanchez crafts a crucible of loneliness and desire, centering around a core of existential longing. Although executive producer Neil LaBute’s participation on the film might be taken as a signifier, Four lacks both the menace and the pathos of LaBute’s best work.

Sanchez’s script displays a veneer of compassion for the characters’ various emotional dilemmas -- Joe’s closeted home life, complicated by an invalid wife; June’s paralyzing inability to embrace his sexuality; and Abigayle’s painful mix of confusion and indecision --  that’s undercut by a barely concealed mix of erotic yearning and peril. The virtues of a nonjudgmental perspective however, are countered by the clearly illicit nature of Joe and June’s assignation.

Stylistically, Sanchez’s tightly framed scenes, often slightly destabilized by handheld camerawork, are par for character-driven dramas and offer little in terms of subtextual commentary. Conversely, frequent intercutting between the scenes of the separate but related couples draws unnecessary attention to the similarity of their situations. Perhaps the practically incessant and often digressive dialogue and the sequences of driving and drifting aimlessly through the July night are more compelling onstage with live actors, but onscreen they come off as static and suffocating.

Despite the ensemble winning the Los Angeles Film Festival’s Best Performance acting award, the cast appears to lack equilibrium. Pierce, a veteran of The Wire and Treme, forms the center of the quartet of characters, but both the scope of his role and his clearly superior skill contribute to minimizing the impact of the other actors. Although Cohen’s performance is imbued with a blend of fear and menace, he rarely deploys them effectively. King and Bonilla get by mostly on the strength of their dialogue, until later scenes pull their characters more sharply into focus.

Although Four might have made a fine departure point as the inspiration for a more substantial drama, as an adaptation it lacks the visceral qualities perhaps better exploited by live performance.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
Production companies: Four Film, Blue Noon Films
Cast: Wendell Pierce, Emory Cohen, Aja Naomi King, E.J.Bonilla
Director/screenwriter: Joshua Sanchez
Producers: Christine Giorgio, Wendell Pierce
Executive producers: Neil LaBute, Allen Frame
Director of photography: Gregg Conde
Production designer: Liza Donatelli
Costume designer: Mel Puerto
Editor: David Gutnik
Music: Bryan Senti
No rating, 76 minutes.