Published May 21, 2013Like most films adapted from plays, the main struggle with Christopher Shinn's Four isn't in writing or characterization; the issue is making cinematic a story written specifically for the stage that utilizes words and performances to convey emotion and intent. In a film, there's forced perspective, editing, non-diegetic music, colour palettes, imposed tone and a variety of other techniques to consider.
With Four director Joshua Sanchez hasn't made any extreme dramatic conceits; there are still only a handful of sets and stylization is kept to a minimum. Instead, he plays with the audience eye, limiting what we see and projecting emotion through intimate close-up and reaction, which is something that's (usually) impossible on a stage where feelings need to be exaggerated for the audience to interpret.
Since this is a very small, very subtle character piece with few major plot points, this tactic is quite effective in film form, giving this story of an older married man meeting a younger boy off the internet for a fling some added introspection. Chiefly, it helps bring a bit of added emotional confusion and inner-turmoil to June (Emory Cohen). Meeting a much older, much heavier and very much married black stranger—Joe (Wendell Pierce)—from the internet and hopping into his car without question demonstrates a degree of desperation and self-loathing difficult to verbalize.
Joe, having a background in social work and, presumably, substantive experience in sating the anxieties of barely legal boys, does his best to ensure compliance and agreement, demanding clear answers to questions about will and intent amidst June's mostly withdrawn and twitchy disposition.
Mirroring this story is one of Joe's daughter, Abigayle (Aja Naomi King), and a flirtatious, overly assertive classmate (E.J. Bonilla). Initially reluctant to his advances, looking after an unseen mother, she agrees to meet him after a phone call with her father reminds her of the days when her family was normal and her parents appeared to be in love.
Her insecurities and false confidence—Dexter (Bonilla) hits the nail on the head by pointing out her assumption of him being too stupid to understand her inner-feelings—eventual break down to an act of degradation and fleeting validation, much like the painfully insecure June, who stares blankly into a pillow, objectified and submissive, while Joe uses him. As framed tastefully by Sanchez, these acts play as a depressing plea for unfulfilled love, filling in the emotional blanks that a dialogue between emotionally shut off characters is incapable of capturing.
It's the quiet moments where the actors—chiefly Cohen and King—are given time to react and respond to their situation. The dialogue, being a play, is quite strong and hits all of the key themes and narrative aspects without spelling anything out awkwardly, but the strength of the filmed version is these silent moments of reflection.
Had Sanchez considered other aspects of filmmaking beyond shot composition, this effective story could have become something memorable and devastating. He's almost there, understanding perspective and audience eye, but doesn't quite know how to use cinematic trickery and sound to maximize or, conversely, minimize a moment outside of the surface plot elements or character motivations.
Still, in having captured the pain of youthful insecurity and the nature of socially imposed self-hatred, in addition to understanding the need to replace unfulfilled familial affections with hollow sex, Sanchez has crafted a thoughtful and timely work, tackling topics that most people are uncomfortable even acknowledging. (Wolfe Releasing)