January 28, 2020

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Reviews: “Promising Young Woman,” “Four Good Days” & “Zola”


PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (Focus/Universal – April 17):  Emerald Fennell’s feature-film writing/directing debut has antecedents as old as the 1973 TV-movie The Girl Most Likely To… (co-written by Joan Rivers) and as recent as Killing Eve (for which Fennell served as Season 2 showrunner), with the added frisson of a #MeToo-driven storyline.  Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is a former star medical student who abruptly dropped out of school and is, when we meet her, dividing her time between an undemanding job at a coffee shop and her real passion, pretending to be blackout drunk in bars and taking revenge on the men who attempt to take advantage of her.  Things get more complicated when she bumps into Ryan (Bo Burnham, the writer/director of Eighth Grade), a likable pediatric surgeon she’d known at school.  Cassie finds herself reluctantly feeling the appeal of romance, even as she retraces the steps that led her to abandon her former life, bringing her into contact with characters played by Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina and Chris Lowell.  Fennell’s work on Killing Eve felt hindered by the giant Phoebe Waller-Bridge-sized footprints she was stepping into, but here she seems in complete control of her material and style, with a variety of plot twists that deliver.  Mulligan adds to her recent exceptional work (Wildlife, TV’s Collateral) with a performance by turns charming, hilarious and terrifying, and the supporting cast is rock-solid, with appearances by Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse worth noting (even Jennifer Coolidge is restrained by her standards).  The photography by Benjamin Kracun and costumes by Nancy Steiner are stylized without calling too much attention to themselves, and there’s a terrific soundtrack.  Promising Young Woman will undoubtedly create buzz when it opens, but social issues aside, it’s a tremendous entertainment.

FOUR GOOD DAYS (no distrib):  Rehab dramas are a staple of Sundance (and indie film in general, for that matter), and Rodrigo Garcia’s effort, from a script written with Eli Saslow, tries to add some topical spins.  Molly (Mila Kunis) was prescribed oxycodone after an accident when she was a teen, and her resulting opioid addiction has spun into heroin, crystal meth and crack.  She’s robbed her mother Deb (Glenn Close) and stepfather Chris (Stephen Root) so many times that she’s literally been locked out of their house, and when she shows up after a long absence, she’s a horrific figure, emaciated and with rotted teeth.  Eventually Deb takes her to yet another rehab clinic, where the two women are told about Naltrexone, a drug that can help keep junkies clean by chemically blocking the opioid high.  The only catch:  the Naltrexone can only be put into the system of someone who’s been clean at least a week, and since Deb and Molly hear about the treatment after a 72-hour detox, Molly will have to complete four more days without drugs to get the potential cure.  That puts mother and daughter in close proximity for the first time in years, with Deb never sure whether Molly’s protestations and vows are honest or a long con to get her hands on enough money for a fix.  Naturally, secrets are revealed and grudges are explored.  Although the specifics are different, the basic premise of Four Good Days isn’t dissimilar from that of Ben Is Back, and Four Days is a more conventional, less cutting version of the story.  Kunis puts herself through the wringer to portray Molly’s pathetic shape, but all those cosmetic signposts make Molly less interesting than Lucas Hedges’ character in Ben, and Close, who’s worked with Garcia many times before, can’t find many surprises in Deb.  The result feels like just another entry in a crowded genre.

ZOLA (A24-TBD):  A24 is also the studio that released Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers with some success, and Janicza Bravo’s Zola is very much of a piece with that epic, and in one way even more of the moment:  Bravo and award-winning playwright Jeremy O. Harris based their script on a run of tweets posted by A’Ziah Wells (aka Zola, played here by Taylour Paige) about a very bad weekend in Tampa with a fellow pole dancer named Jessica (Riley Keough), and Jessica’s own Reddit posts on the subject (as well as David Kushner’s resulting Rolling Stone article).  One wouldn’t expect great depth from social media source material, and Zola is basically an extended anecdote, in which Zola thinks she and Jessica are going to Tampa for some dancing gigs, only to discover that along with Jessica’s brain-dead boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun, Cousin Greg from Succession), the party included Jessica’s pimp known as X (The Walking Dead‘s Colman Domingo), who intended to put both women into service.  Things escalated from there to include a shooting and an attempted suicide.  Bravo piles on directing gimmicks to give the material as much sticking power as she can (at times the film recalls Tony Scott’s late-career overloads), from fourth-wall breaking asides to split-screen montages, and the 90-minute runtime goes by in a rush.  There isn’t much that’s memorable, however, aside from seeing Keough play a loud-mouthed, low-class sex worker who couldn’t be more of a flip from the icy, sophisticated one she played in The Girlfriend Experiment, and conversely, seeing that despite all the obvious differences between his two roles, Braun’s Derrek might as well be called Cousin Derrek.  Paige holds the proceedings together, to the extent that’s even possible, the music never stops, and editor Joi McMillon puts on a show.  Zola is a whopper, both as a story and as a piece of tasty but unhealthy fast food.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."