Spotlighting a quartet of furiously committed performances, and burnished by vivid, atmospheric lensing, Joshua Sanchez’s “Four” assembles a strikingly impressive facade, though its source material makes for an unstable foundation. Adapted from the play by Christopher Shinn, this intense yet low-key saga of two couples (one traditional, one illegal) occasionally gets tripped up by bursts of stagy dialogue and overly schematic structuring. Nonetheless, the talents both in front of and behind the camera are obvious, and fest play should help spread their names further.
Taking place entirely on one lonely suburban Independence Day evening, “Four” crisscrosses between scenes of two wildly different courtships — one between charmingly brash high-school athlete Dexter (E.J. Bonilla) and reticent brainy girl Abigayle (Aja Naomi King); the other between Abigayle’s professor father, Joe (Wendell Pierce), and June (Emory Cohen), a jittery teenage boy he seduced via the Internet. The latter is the film’s most pronounced relationship, and it is presented much less judgmentally than one might expect.
Which is not to say that the criminal nature of this pairing is whitewashed, exactly. From the start, when June escapes a family barbecue to meet Joe behind a department store, the essential Chris Hansen-ness of the scene is apparent, and discomfort is ratcheted up further by emphasizing the yawning disparity between June, with his waifish physique and quivering speech, and the bearish, bearded, baritone-voiced Joe.
Yet there’s more going on here than simple victimization: As the two drive around and talk, Joe begins to counsel the youngster about his reluctance to come out to his parents or to pursue relationships with his peers, and shares hard lessons from his own decades spent as a closeted gay man. Were it not for the non-explicit (yet appropriately skin-crawling) sex scene between the two, their relationship might almost seem an argument for old-school Athenian pederasty.
For this reason, it’s hard not to breathe a sigh of relief when the film’s focus switches over to Abigayle and Dexter. Believing her dad to be on a business trip in Boston, Abigayle is left to watch over her bedridden, mostly unseen mother (Yolonda Ross). Smooth-talking Dexter eventually badgers her into joining him for a drive, which, through constant pleading and cajoling, becomes an all-night date.
While all four leads are solid, and Pierce and Cohen get the film’s juiciest parts, King’s performance as Abigayle may just be the standout. Given less in terms of backstory than the other three, as well as dialogue that primarily consists of turning down and resisting her wannabe lothario, King nonetheless imbues her character with an essential, unwritten sweetness that helps bring a little light into the film.
Pierce (“The Wire”) shows his class as an actor in a difficult role, managing to convey Joe’s warm, big-brotherly qualities alongside his sexual menace. Yet he’s burdened with some overly grandiloquent lines that surely worked better onstage, most notably a soliloquy on AIDS having “made (gay men) human” that starts off intriguing and ends up confounding.
Though the film was made on a budget, its intuitive tech specs give it a potent aura of humid, midsummer ennui. Lenser Gregg Conde is alert to the many different degrees of shadow that play across the characters’ faces throughout, and Sanchez does well to frame their surroundings as a desolate, nearly uninhabited expanse, as indeed it must seem to them in their moments of crisis.