Friday, April 30, 2021

Prodigal Daughter: FOUR GOOD DAYS

Remember Beautiful Boy? It was an under-seen tough-minded little drama from a few years ago that followed a loving father (Steve Carell) trying to stay supportive of a son (Timothée Chalamet) caught in cycles of using drugs. It fell under the radar, perhaps because it didn’t offer easy answers, and writer-director Felix van Groeningen was totally committed to the repetitive boom-bust of getting clean and then relapsing. The movie made it clear that even a great parent will grow weary from the feelings of betrayal when working with a child to kick a destructive habit, only to watch it all disappear sooner or later with the next high, and whatever calamitous route he takes to get there. That’s a good movie, tough but fair, and attuned to the ways in which having a child in the throes of addiction can be something like living with an open wound. How devastating to find the surprise appearance of a prodigal offspring on your door raises justifiable suspicions that can overtake the unconditional love that always remains. It’s an uneasy truth, and doesn’t make for an easily digestible narrative structure, but it’s real and it hurts.

I say all this simply to point to a new drama in a similar vein. Four Good Days is a mother-daughter story, but follows a similar pattern. Unlike the earlier movie, though, it leans into a broadness of message and hits its beats with a heavy hand. We can always feel the push of writer-director Rodrigo García goosing the emotion with all his weight against the film’s rudder. It stars Glenn Close as a woman who is basically ready to give up on her grown daughter, Mila Kunis. The young woman, we quickly come to understand, has been through the cycles of recovery and relapse many times before, with bad decisions and worse outcomes for her personal life. She’s a wreck. When she knocks on the door, Close, and her husband Stephen Root, barely want to answer it. Close does good work playing a woman who doesn’t know if she can have this relationship go on poking at the psychological wound that would consume them both if they let it. That she can communicate this through thick makeup effects that make her look like a distant relative of Albert Nobbs is further proof she’s a fine actress. Kunis, for her part, has the stringy hair and missing teeth applied just so, a de-glammed work that’s committed, if not always convincing. Together, though, the women raise the potentially (and sometimes actually) cliched to something approaching genuine.

The movie has a thinness of look, and flatness of image — a plasticky digital wanness that makes it look just a step up from a made-for-basic-cable message movie — but is circling the same ideas that made Beautiful Boy so good. Here’s what feels an unwindable situation, as Close is determined to keep her daughter clean for just four good days in order to make her eligible for yet another program. The women have several obvious speeches in a variety of settings, and some harrowing complications along the way, hammering home this obvious point: no matter what an addict does, they are still human. And when you aren’t sure how to go on in a situation that feels so hopeless, somehow, as the new Diane Warren ballad sung by Reba over the end credits says, you do. The sentiment has an undeniable worthiness, and the performances are just real enough to inhabit it. I caught up with the movie the same day I read an article in The New York Times reporting 2020 saw a 30% increase in deaths by drug overdose. How sobering. These movies are speaking to something with which millions of Americans struggle. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last ones attempting to grapple with the implications.

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