The final stretch of the U.S. Dramatic Competition unfurled over the last two days of the virtual Sundance Film Festival, and it was a bumpy road in terms of quality. It was also a refreshing display of the variety of the program this year. Whereas it was tempting to thematically tie the first pair of trios of the most prominent section of the festival, this last quartet provokes the opposite response: marveling at the diversity in tone, creative teams, and subject matter.
The best of the bunch is from the youngest filmmaker in the program, Cooper Raiff, who follows up his indie comedy hit debut “Shithouse” with a more confident, moving, funny dramedy in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” another story of those often-aimless years after college but one that’s told in a buoyant, easily likable manner. Raiff’s films capture the uncertainty of youth in a way that feels vulnerable and relatable. While it sometimes feels like he’s trying to cram a few too many messages into “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” it’s incredibly easy to dance along.
Raiff plays Andrew, a college graduate who has moved home with his younger brother (Evan Assante), mother (Leslie Mann) and mom’s boyfriend (Brad Garrett) while he tries to figure out what’s next. His girlfriend is off traveling in Spain, and he’s stuck working at a place called Meat Sticks, but he maintains a surprising general optimism. He’s not the traditional sad sack slacker that we’ve seen in so many other college dramedies. On the contrary, he’s such the optimist in the community that he ends up working as a “party starter” at bar and bat mitzvahs in the area. He’s the guy who gets the kids on the dance floor, even if he sometimes has to fill his water bottle with another clear liquid to keep his energy up.
Through these events, which aren’t coincidentally about a time where the Jewish religion believes someone has “become a man,” something Andrew is still figuring out nine years later, he meets a local mom named Domino (a phenomenal Dakota Johnson, doing some of the best work of her career), and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). If Andrew is the extrovert in the room, Domino is the introvert, protective of her daughter and wary of others. Andrew’s kindness to Lola interests Domino, and he’s equally fascinated by this beautiful woman who he wants to help find happiness, but “Cha Cha Real Smooth” isn’t a traditional rom-com with an age gap. It’s a film that’s always shifting in that sense, centering the growing connection between Domino & Andrew in one scene, but then allowing for tangents like Andrew teaching his younger brother about love, hooking up with an old high school classmate (Odeya Rush), or trying to help his mother.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a film about those messy years, when we’re trying to figure out who we are, what we want, and more than most films like this, what we can offer other people in the world. So many early-20s crisis films are about selfish pursuits of identity, but I admire the value Raiff puts in connection. He's also becoming a better actor and proven already to be a strong director of performance. He draws a fantastic one from Johnson, who balances Raiff's exuberance with a study of a life that has been stalled by young motherhood, and the emotions that can come with that. It's one of the best performances you'll see this year. And everyone is good at finding the tone of the film, something that speaks to Raiff's direction too.
In the end, Andrew has a bit of a savior complex with not just Domino but a lot of people in his life, and he really learns that this is a time when he needs to experience his own party, not just get them going for other people. It’s a smart film that ends up also being surprisingly moving. We all have these messy chapters in our life. Sometimes I miss mine.
A very different story of formative youth unfolds in Jamie Dack’s powerful “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” a disturbing story of the ease of predation. A character study that’s anchored by a moving breakthrough performance from Lily McInerny, and one that ably supports and balances it from Jonathan Tucker, Dack’s film needs trigger warnings for everyone, but especially those who have dealt with sexual abuse. It’s unsparing in its vision of evil, revealing how mundane it can look to outsiders who aren’t willing to really see what’s going to happen.
McInerny plays Lea, a 17-year-old who is stuck in a dead-end chapter of her life. Her mother (Gretchen Mol) is rarely around and her friends kind of suck. It’s a time when people often fill their nights with bland, drunken apathy, punctuating them with the occasional hook-up in a cramped car. Of course, someone like Lea is going to be interested in a handsome older man like Tom (Tucker) when he praises her intelligence, encourages her future, and compliments her looks. She’s getting none of that elsewhere. And people like Tom know this. It's the strategy of the predator, grooming children with attention to get what they want from them.
“Palm Trees and Power Lines” is grounded by the natural, effective performances of McInerny and Tucker, two performers who never feel like they’re playing theme or message, only character. Dack also smartly employs realism, never falling prey to the lyricism of films that sometimes feel like their distancing characters like Lea and Tom, or, even worse, looking down on Lea. There’s empathy in taking people like Lea seriously as human beings and not turning her into a thematic mouthpiece or artistic invention, and that’s what makes the final scenes of “Palm Trees” so powerfully hard to watch. And then, after the horror has begun to subside, Dack saves one of her hardest punches for last, and we leave this movie reeling.
Sadly, my last two competition films were less successful despite their ambitions, so I’ll be brief on both of them. The clunkiest film of the festival is Krystin Ver Linden’s “Alice,” three misfires in one in how it blends slave drama, vengeance thriller, and even Blaxploitation action pic into its narrative. Ver Linden’s film telegraphs how much it wants to say about the Black experience in America but doesn’t really bother to say anything at all about it, ultimately feeling more exploitative than empowering.
Keke Palmer plays the title character, a slave on a Georgia plantation who goes through her own kind of rabbit hole to Wonderland when she flees her vile owner Paul (Jonny Lee Miller) and races through the woods nearby, only to come out on a freeway and nearly get run over by a truck driver named Frank (Common). It turns out that it’s 1973. Ver Linden’s film claims to be based on a true story, although the root of that is just that slavery still existed in some parts of the country for a century after its end. She takes this idea to an extreme, imagining a set-up almost like “The Village,” wherein a sheltered community never learned of freedom until Alice escaped and came back to liberate her people.
It’s not a bad idea, but it never really advances beyond its concept, and bounces through tonal issues as it jumps genres. If anything, it seems to actively avoid its potential. “Alice” pulls its punches, becoming a sort of playful homage to Blaxploitation, proving Keke Palmer could star in a Pam Grier biopic but little else. Ver Linden was an assistant on “Django Unchained” and it feels like the idea here probably sprung from that experience (there are also elements of "Jackie Brown" of course), but she doesn’t have the character depth or visual ambition to do much of anything with it.
Finally, there’s Bradley Rust Gray’s “blood,” a confounding drama that’s ostensibly about connecting to people and the world while navigating grief, but that might imply more of an emotional currency than I could ever find in the piece. And I really tried. Being a fan of slow films about characters who have to go somewhere else to find themselves (check out my recent review of “Memoria,” for example), “blood” should check all my preferences, but I found it meandering instead of mesmerizing, a deeply frustrating experience.
Carla Juri plays a widow named Chloe, who travels to Japan for work and reconnects with an old friend named Toshi (Takashi Ueno). That’s about it. “blood” is a patchwork of scenes that alternate between feeling improvised or over-written, too rarely finding resonance. Chloe and Toshi watch his daughter Futaba (Futaba Okazaki) play in a park or with a talking toy. Chloe has the casual comfort of long friendship (and maybe more) with Toshi and a few deep conversations with people in Toshi’s sphere, but Gray’s style keeps her inner journey inside of Chloe, which isn’t always a problem but creates a film that feels purposefully distancing. Grief can do that—distance us from others and even ourselves—and I admire the ambition of using that dance of disconnection and reconnection in that period of our lives as a sort of narrative language for a film but Gray sacrifices momentum and coherency to do so.
“blood” is the kind of film that could become richer outside of the festival experience—it’s a tough pace for a 5-movie-a-day reading. Unpacking themes of how we grieve, connect, and live in this world feels valuable. I just wish I didn’t feel like “blood” was actively pushing viewers away from being able to do so.