Sundance Blog: Four Good Days

January 31, 2020
After seeing Four Good Days at its Sundance premiere, it took me four more days to process it and write this article… but the film is still in my system.

Who needs drugs when you can get a cinematic fix from such an exhilarating film? This true story of a woman trying to help her daughter go through drug detox, is an emotional rollercoaster ride filled with euphoric highs and lows, a synergistic effect of suspense and humour, and a satisfying dose of cathartic pathos.

For those who have personal experience with someone battling substance abuse, this film might be too upsetting (or triggering), or it could offer a ray of hope and understanding. For those who aren’t as close to the subject matter, this film can be fascinating, compelling, and dare I say… entertaining. It offers a hopeful escape from other one-note depressing drug-addiction movies.

In a pair of Oscar-worthy performances, Glenn Close and Mila Kunis portray mother and daughter, who have been estranged due to the daughter’s years of substance abuse.

While Close delivers a riveting performance with a harrowing emotional journey, Kunis accomplishes a stunning physical performance as she transforms her appearance and simulates the devastating effects of drugs on her body while still creating a multi-dimensional character.

Actor Mila Kunis at the World Premiere of Four Good Days by Rodrigo Garcia, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. © 2020 Sundance Institute | photo by Miguel Mendoza.

The dialogue and dynamic between the two actors are every bit as captivating as this year’s other Oscar-nominated pair-ups A Marriage Story and The Two Popes. Here’s hoping that these roles will earn Close her long-deserved Academy Award for Best Actress and Kunis her first nomination at least.

When meth-addict Molly unexpectedly shows up on her mother’s doorstep asking for help, Deb is horrified to see how her daughter’s condition has worsened, but she is also leery of the inevitable destruction and manipulation that may follow if she lets her back into the house for the umpteenth time. So begins the emotional seesaw a parent goes through when choosing tough love or unconditional love.

The mother’s protective instinct wins out and Deb once again gets her hopes up at the chance of her daughter’s recovery and drives her to a detox clinic. After she makes it past three days, the doctor proposes a new solution in the form of an opiate antagonist, a monthly injection that will make the body immune to getting high and ease the cravings. When Molly asks the doctor if the treatment is safe, Deb looks at her incredulously and says “Are you kidding me? You have spent 10 years putting rat poison and God knows what into your system. And now your body is a temple?” These are the kinds of witty lines that make this tough subject matter easier to swallow.

In order to have the shot, Molly’s system must be completely free of drugs through further detoxification that will take four more days. This is the titular waiting period that ignites the suspense, as the threat of an inevitable relapse looms while the clock is ticking.

Actors Glenn Close and Stephen Root attend the World Premiere of Four Good Days by Rodrigo Garcia, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. © 2020 Sundance Institute | photo by Lauren Wester.

Although the story of a parent confronting their child’s substance abuse has been explored recently on the big screen in films like Beautiful Boy and Ben Is Back, this film is more reminiscent of one of the best episodes of the 1980s TV series Knots Landing entitled “No Miracle Worker”, when Donna Mills’ character Abby locks her daughter Olivia inside her house with her to get her off drugs. Except back in the ‘80s, Olivia’s drug problem only revolved around cocaine. Nowadays, there are much more dangerous drugs like meth, Oxy, and Adderall fueling the opioid epidemic and the drugs are not just supplied by lawless drug-dealers but by legal pharmaceutical companies and prescribed by licensed medical establishments. Deb emphasises this point by accusing the doctor of causing her daughter’s addiction problem at the age of 17 when he gave her an unlimited prescription for Oxycontin.

These are the kinds of insights that open up the conflict in Four Good Days from an intimate family drama to a timely story with a larger societal magnitude. As Deb goes from confronting drug dealers in a crack house to bureaucratic nurses in a hospital, she becomes the voice of reason that connects the dots. When Molly gives a cautionary speech to a high school class about how she used to be a straight-A student and could never have imagined failing in life, she becomes a sympathetic face of the crisis. Instead of placing the blame on any one person, the film explores the root cause of addiction through a multi-dimensional prism.

The screenplay is eloquently co-written by the director, Rodrigo García (who inherited the writing gene from his father, Nobel-prize winner Gabriel García Márquez) and Eli Saslow (the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote the 2016 Washington Post article about the true mother and daughter story upon which this film is based.)

Director Rodrigo Garcia introduces the World Premiere of Four Good Days by Rodrigo Garcia, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. © 2020 Sundance Institute | photo by Lauren Wester.

Rodrigo Garcia commented after the screening in the Q&A, that he loves stories that tell a whole life, by only showing a chapter of the life. This film expertly does that by gradually revealing more and more layers of backstory through moments of truth and character revelations. Key scenes with Molly’s enabling ex-husband, her untrusting kids, her jealously judgmental sister, and her selfishly unsupportive father, are uniquely written and performed, feeling fresh and interesting, and not just obligatory or perfunctory. Small moments become monumental, like the first trip out of the house to a grocery store or an unfinished puzzle in the garage. These symbolic scenes create a kind of iconography that should make this film an enduring classic.

The music score beautifully complements the drama and is infused with an occasional gong or zen-like chime that subtly underscore the healing atmosphere of Deb’s home and her career as a massage therapist. Being meticulously constructed and beautifully crafted might bother those critics who prefer to have films sloppy, ugly, and mundane for the sake of uncompromising verisimilitude.

While I prefer to get my dose of reality from documentaries, I like my narrative films to be an artistic interpretation of reality, believable enough that I can inhabit the world, but minus the parts that are irrelevant to the story or unnecessary for the atmosphere. Four Good Days is efficient and effective. It is the purest essence of good storytelling and filmmaking combined.

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