Dakota Johnson does double duty this year at Sundance so now is a perfect time to celebrate these two films and the wonderful filmmakers who have created them.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH
Some films take a while to get into their groove, some never reach that point. So how do you make sure you start your film with the right moves that perfectly locks in your audience? By playing Lupe Fiasco’s 2011 hit “The Show Goes On” of course. If you’re a millennial heading into your mid-late 20’s this will immediately transport you back to awkward school dances, acne, and life’s biggest question “but do they like like me?”
Let’s see if this sounds familiar to you. You’re at yet another Bar Mitzvah, while everyone awkwardly dances, you stand in the background gazing at the pretty (and older) girl hired to get the party started. As you stare dreaming about what your life could be, your actual life goes on without you. For Cooper Raiff, the best new voice of his generation, this set up is not just script material, it’s a life pattern. A pattern that many mid 20 year old’s still find themselves in. College is done, the student loans rack up, and you’re supposed to get a job? When did the party stop and why didn’t I dance more? Raiff explores this and much more in his hysterically written and poignant sophomore film. After winning the hearts of the SXSW festival with his debut feature Shithouse it’s great to see that the kid is no fluke. Cha Cha Real Smooth brings the heart of Linklater, the uncomfortableness of Apatow and now what can be referred to as “the kindness of Raiff.” Because at the heart of it all that is what Cha Cha is, a film about people who are kind but still need compassion shown to them.
Andrew (Raiff once again taking the lead) has moved back home with his family in New Jersey. Home isn’t easy, his bipolar mom (a lovely Leslie Mann) has moved out of the family house that Andrew cherished, his step-dad (Brad Garret) will never be enough, and most of Andrew’s time is dedicated to helping his younger brother (Evan Assante) get his first kiss. This is fairly easy struggles, but when you’re 22 working at a hot dog stand in the food court, you find yourself asking “there has to be more than this.” Well the “more” comes in the form of a lame Bar Mitzvah that Andrew helps saves the day from. Not only does he win the hearts of some creepy New Jersey moms he convinces himself to become a personal party starter for local Bar Mitzvahs. This means Andrew can’t be happy until everyone is happy, and Raiff plays to that with perfection.
The first unhappy partygoer Andrew locks eyes on comes in the form of a stunning older woman named Domino. Not everyone can pull off that name but thankfully it is given to Dakota Johnson in what may just be her best performance in an already spectacular career. There is no denying what attracts Andrew to Domino but let’s be clear she is no helpless victim. No Johnson never plays it as such, instead she creates a strong but lost woman trying to navigate the responsibilities of being thirty. Domino’s biggest responsibility is her autistic daughter Lola (phenomenal newcomer Vanessa Burghardt) who unfortunately is all too used to being on her own at these parties. Andrew’s kindness to Lola may be what gets him in the door with Domino, but Raiff’s script never writes it as someone creeping their way in (nor is Domino that naïve). No, any attraction that forms between them is a creation of two lost wanderers who do not need the other to survive but believes it is where they are meant to be. Domino has more at stake since she is engaged to her lawyer fiancé Joseph (Raul Castillo) who is always travelling but cherishes the moments when he can be around. This added element makes the “will they won’t they” moments less about the romantics and more the complications that will form. Their relationship creates the strongest moments of the film and while Raiff is a strong performer himself it helps that Johnson never makes this her show. It is an equal partnership and her admiration for Raiff as an artist is clearly seen. This can be said of all the bigger stars of the film and speaks volumes to Raiff’s talents. Why try to fix what is not broken?
What is broken however is Andrew’s motivation to live outside this fairytale he has found himself in. With a lesser filmmaker the notion of possibly hooking up with a hot older mom would become a full on comedy fest. Raiff knows not to play this way mostly because as a person that just isn’t him. This is a film about kindness after all and that is what both Raiff the artist and Andrew exuberates. The kindness he has towards his brother, his mom, Domino, Lola, and even endless amounts of people at endless amounts of Bar Mitzvahs. Kindness can be the devil however especially when it comes to Sundance films, and one wouldn’t blame you to be waiting for it to all fall apart or have you full on gag due to an abundance of sentimentality. Fear not though because this is where the rug is pulled from under you. The thing about helping others is that it allows you an excuse not to help yourself, and it is here where we discover that Andrew is not a lone protagonist. Domino and Lola are stuck, and while Lola has the comfort of her mother and father, it is Domino who who must escape her fears and realize the party doesn’t have to end at your 30’s it will just feel and look different. This switch of focus takes a lot of talent in your script but even more in your performer. This is what makes Dakota Johnson one of our best today. Her ability to veer the focus onto new things but never lose sight of what the story is telling.
Raiff may just have two films under his belt now, but he is allowing his voice to amplify a generation. A generation that is often ridiculed for not growing up the second college ends. If Cha Cha proves anything it is that these difficulties don’t go away as we get older, the responsibilities may change and you will stumble a lot, but as the great poet Lupe Fiasco says in the opening song, “Just remember when you come up, the show goes on.”
AM I OK?
(Stephanie Allynne, Tig Notaro)
Does a crowd pleaser have to deliver on constant swooning moments that remind us of better times? No, it may help but what makes a true crowd pleaser is vulnerability and honesty that many of us can find ourselves in. Married in real life, directing for the first time together, Tig Notaro and Stephanie Alyynne’s heartwarming sex comedy Am I Ok? checks off plenty of crowd pleasing boxes. However, it also creates the much needed female friendship shaken up by the reveal of one being gay genre that we the world does not have enough of. And if that isn’t enough add the element of hating yourself because you haven’t figured it all out by the time you turned 30. The “blasphemy” of not knowing who you are by thirty hysterically carries this film through its breezy 86 minutes. It is comfort food at a much needed level.
Lucy (Dakota Johnson crushing it with double Sundance duty) may feel stuck but at least she has her best friend Jane (a glorious Sonoya Mizuno) by her side. It’s not like Jane is going to move halfway across the world, right? Well, when Jane gets a promotion in London, where Jane is originally from, it allows for an upset and very drunk Lucy to let her feelings out and confess to her friend that she is gay. It is a setup that can go in many different directions. Thankfully Notaro, Allynne and a clever script by Lauren Pomerantz never lets it enter hallmark channel territory of “I’ll love you know matter what” instead it chooses a real intimate friendship that involves Jane making several wise cracks about the many vaginas Lucy can now touch. Even with all its early humorous moments it never strays from the horrifying idea that Lucy is now out and alone. How do you cope when you’ve just come out in your thirties, “I should have known when I was nine” she says through laughs and tears. It doesn’t help that Jane’s coworker (a chaotic Molly Gordon) is also moving to London leaving Lucy disposable. Lucy has a lot to figure out, and Johnson plays innocence and curiosity all at the same time with great ease.
For such a quick film, Notaro and Allynne make plenty of time to add in the friction that is inevitable when it comes to best friends. A scene involving the two of them getting in a fight at Jane’s office would be enough but adding the element of following the two walk around the entire building screaming at one another while nobody says a word brings that comical mockery of LA culture. It’s a wonderfully shot moment where anyone can relate to finally being able to tell your best friend about all the unbearable stuff they do, you know them best after all.
Since this is a story of best friends it never pushes Jane aside in favor of Lucy’s story. No Mizuno plays Jane as just as much of a lost child as Lucy. Sure, she may have her career in great shape, but how does one say goodbye to your best friend who has just opened up in the biggest way while also still harboring your own problems. Mizuno gets some of the film’s funniest moments (seriously hire her for all your comedies) as she herself realizes she is terrified of leaving so much behind. A ton of credit goes to Pomerantz’s script for balancing both these strong roles.
Being such a short film, it does cause some moments to hit beats a little too conventional and it may lead to expected moments, but it has also found its own unique way to shape future comedies. Yes, there will be romances, but friendship is more than intimate enough to carry its own weight. In fact, the film’s biggest argument may just be if you don’t know who you are look for it in your best friend. With one another you’ll find the answers.