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Sundance 2020: The Glorias, Herself, Four Good Days

In a year where female driven stories and reflections on #MeToo and #TimesUp stole the spotlight in Park City, Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias” couldn’t have been a more fitting Sundance premiere. A scrapbook-y biopic on feminist icon Gloria Steinem—played primarily by Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander, as well as Lulu Wilson and Ryan Kiera Armstrong in different stages of the activist’s life—“The Glorias” is a wide and varied look at the opinionated rabble-rouser who refused to settle for the bare minimum she was allowed to have by the male-dominated world around her. Taymor’s film is a touch overlong and slightly overwhelming in its creative components that sometimes feel random. Still, “The Glorias” manages to hit a timely nerve, even though it doesn’t always work.

Like Jennifer Fox did in “The Tale” (and Greta Gerwig stylistically suggested in “Little Women”), Taymor portrays the various ages of her film’s central figure side by side in certain scenes, and even in conversation with each other. For the most part, this proves to be her film’s strongest narrative facet that works towards its emotional advantage, reminding the viewer that just like the rest of us, the enigmatic Gloria Steinem answers to her younger self and has aspirations for her future version. This is true when the young, aspiring writer gets subjected to sexism, sexual harassment and discrimination throughout her career, and gets sidelined by arrogant men who refuse to engage with her activism-minded, journalistic smarts instead of her looks throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond.

The tale is also effective in its celebration of sisterhood (there is a reason the title refers to more than one Gloria), especially when it takes us through the founding of the influential Ms. Magazine, with a strong list of side characters played by the likes of Bette Midler, Janelle Monáe and Lorraine Toussaint. Also central to it is Steinem’s perception of her ex-writer mother and how Steinem uncompromisingly channeled her energy towards eliminating the wrongs that have been done to sacrificing women like her. Less successful in “The Glorias” is Taymor’s idiosyncratic tendencies to inject her vividly psychedelic style into a rather conventional film that doesn’t call for it. So when a “Wizard of Oz”-related animation appears out of nowhere more than an hour into the story and other quirky stylistic choices occur after that, you find yourself wondering why things so out-of-place confuse an otherwise straightforward canvas. Though despite this undisciplined construct that begs to be polished, “The Glorias” has plenty of scene-by-scene, standard-issue pleasures to present through its empowering message.

With her elegant, restrained and quietly devastating performance as a headstrong yet financially struggling single-mother of two young girls, Clare Dunne is a revelation in “The Iron Lady” director Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself,” from co-writers Dunne and Malcolm Campbell. At first, this contemporary Irish tale of domestic abuse looks like it could become a Dublin-set version of Xavier Legrand’s “Custody”—a chilling film on the horrors a French family is subjected to in the hands of male rage. But then instinctively, “Herself” takes on an unapologetically non-cynical approach, believing in community, camaraderie and the fundamental goodness of people as an antidote to the fears Dunne’s Sandra and her two daughters endure on a daily basis.

Not that Lloyd doesn’t swing for the fences when it comes to displaying the brutality of violence Sandra is stuck in, amid a legal and economical system that doesn’t put her best interests at heart. The trio of mom and her kids grow used to being each other’s rock, once Sandra escapes her ex’s brutal psychical attacks with deep wounds (one a heart-wrenching, well-orchestrated scene is especially hard to watch) and takes shelter in a state-funded hotel room. What if, she thinks, she could build a house instead of living out of a hotel—one of those efficient, DIY ones she has been researching online while working as the domestic helper of an aging, professional woman with flailing health? Where the state falls short in providing the support she needs to realize her dream to be self-sufficient, the neighbors and friends circle step in, filling the gap brick by brick.

“Herself” is a dark film despite its frequent glimmers of laughter and hope—it is sober about the universal consequences of domestic abuse beyond the immediate, and critically unforgiving of legal and governmental systems that fail women who just need to be believed in and listened to. “Ask better questions,” a dignified yet rightfully frustrated Sandra demands from a judge in one scene; a female judge, too, who keeps interrogating Sandra about her poorly managed paperwork during a custody battle instead of focusing on the perpetrator’s crimes. How far would women all around the world go, you wonder, if those in positions of power somehow knew to ask the most important and relevant questions to get in front of all the system-enable troubles?

Also about a hardened mom’s fight—not with the system, but alongside it to keep her junkie daughter alive—“Albert Nobbs” filmmaker Rodrigo García’s “Four Good Days” is unfortunately among the weakest offerings of this year’s festival. Featuring a long-suffering Glenn Close in an unfortunate wig as Deb and Mila Kunis’ addict Molly as her on-the-verge-of-death daughter with rotting teeth and an even more rotten attitude, “Four Good Days” hops from one frustrating cliché to the next, in charting its story’s “Beautiful Boy” meets “Boy Erased” beats. This is a film that will give you every single predictable scene you’d expect from an addition-centered narrative; thus, very little else that isn’t banal or borderline cringe-inducing.

It all begins when an intoxicated and agitated Molly turns up at Deb’s footstep begging to be taken in, so that she could go to a detox facility and start life clean—a plea that falls on Deb’s deaf ears. She’s been there many times, in fact; more than a dozen times and she has heard it all before from Molly, whom she can’t trust with an unattended purse, or pills of any sort. Still, she agrees to drive her to the facility for the painful process, upon which the young woman would receive an injection that would make her system refuse further toxins. The only catch? She has to stay sober for (you guessed it) four days; or the side effects could be fatal.

Tired in look and feel and thoroughly obvious even as early as the first act, the based-on-a-true-story “Four Good Days” doesn’t have much to offer to the audience, except for an occasionally effective Glenn Close (this performance won’t do for her what “The Wife” couldn’t do) and a severe turn from Mila Kunis as a young woman with everything to lose. Within the jam-packed selections of Sundance, “Four Good Days” proved to be as generic and forgettable as the wax paper-wrapped sandwiches sold at the Eccles Theater lobby.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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