I’ve always thought of film festivals as smorgasbords: all the flavors of the cinema, stretched out before attendees like the steaming trays at a Ponderosa. (Remember buffets? Those were fun, in the before times). Here at virtual Sundance, we’ve even got an interactive menu—the fest’s official streaming platform, where the movies are arranged in neat rows of three, catering to every palate, a taste of each just a click away.
It’s important to have a balanced diet at a festival. Eat too many vegetables (a.k.a. sternly serious social-issue dramas or documentaries about climate change) and you might lose your appetite for the whole multi-course, multi-day feast. Binge on dessert (a.k.a. cutesy crowd-pleasers or gory midnight fare) and you might leave malnourished. Thankfully, Sundance understands that variety is the spice of life, and the programmers make it very easy to chase one kind of meal with a whole other kind. Yesterday, for example, I wolfed down two coming-of-age movies featuring age-gap romances, and they couldn’t have been much different from each other, though both broadly fit competing descriptions of the prototypical “Sundance movie.”
You’d find Palm Trees And Power Lines in the vegetable aisle. It provides a grim answer to the question, “How would last year’s Red Rocket play if it was a deadly serious drama told from Strawberry’s perspective?” Expanding her 2018 short film of the same name, writer-director Jamie Dack follows a bored, restless 17-year-old, Lea (Lily McInerny), who falls into a taboo relationship with a man twice her age, the intense, mysterious Tom (Jonathan Tucker). From the moment they meet in a parking lot, where Lea has been ditched after a dine-and-dash, it’s painfully clear that Tom knows exactly what to do and say to secure the attraction of a naïve teen girl. “I think you’re a lot more mature than them,” he tells her after she complains about her friends, and the courtship that follows is textbook manipulation that eventually escalates into controlling behavior and then something much darker.
Dack handles the sensitive material sensitively, but also with a total absence of sentimentality: This is a gruelingly honest portrait of an experience plenty of young women have gone through, perhaps give or take the most brutal details. I was particularly blown away by the ending, which subverts the audience’s concerns and desires in a way that feels woundingly truthful. Yet in some sense, grueling honesty is pretty much all the movie offers: You’re watching a car accident in slow motion, unable to intervene as someone too young to know better is steadily steered towards a devastating outcome. The unaffected performances and stark bobbing-camera aesthetic recall Eliza Hittman, though the unsparing neorealism of Palm Trees And Power Lines makes that Sundance alum look like John Hughes by comparison.
Of all the films I’ve seen from the U.S. Dramatic competition so far, Dack’s strikes me as the most likely winner, if chiefly on grounds of punishing gravitas. (Every jury is different, but let’s just say there’s little danger of anyone failing to take seriously a movie that depicts its most harrowing plot development largely through a wide shot unflinchingly held for minutes on end.) Then again, on the polar opposite end of the spectrum, crowd-pleasers have an established history of doing pretty well in Park City. Cha Cha Real Smooth has the added bonus of being genuinely touching and funny—though that is, of course, a matter of specific taste. As a reminder, I didn’t much like last year’s big winner at the festival and on the applause-o-meter, CODA.
The film’s 25-year-old writer, director, and star, Cooper Raiff, has a weakness for terrible titles. He made a splash in all three of those roles two years ago with the unfortunately named Shithouse, a low-budget campus comedy that caught some Richard Linklater comparisons at SXSW, where it ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize. He graduates now to Sundance and to the foibles of post-graduate life with Cha Cha Real Smooth, whose only marginally more appealing moniker hints at what passes for a hook in this very low-key comedy: After charming the socks off of both the preteen attendees and their mothers at a New Jersey bar mitzvah, shiftless recent grad Andrew (Raiff) starts making a part-time living as a “party starter” at such events. He also starts moonlighting as the babysitter of autistic teen Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), while developing feelings for her engaged mother, Domino (Dakota Johnson).
Raiff is an ace at writing naturalistic screwball banter, and a supremely likable leading man: extroverted but self-deprecating, his default impulse to enthusiastically validate people colliding sometimes with his inability to resist a caustic quip. (The character’s interactions with Brad Garrett, who he exclusively refers to as “Stepdad Greg,” are gut-busting.) It’s not easy to develop a comic voice that feels entirely singular, but Raiff pulls it off here. And for better or worse, the whole movie is built atop his gregarious shtick, a fruitful blend of emotional openness and emotional immaturity.
I suspect there will be those who find this film too nice, especially in its presentation of its protagonist, an essentially sweet kid who the other characters are constantly acknowledging as such. Me, I was as won over as the bar mitzvah crowd he goofily coaxes onto the dance floor. Cha Cha Real Smooth is, at heart, a warm variation on the Judd Apatow prolonged-adolescence comedy, complete with a terrific Leslie Mann in the role of Andrew’s mother. But it ends up proving surprisingly wise in admitting how lacking in wisdom we all are in our early 20s—especially during the expertly written scenes between Raiff and Johnson, who delivers maybe the most relaxed, lovely performance of her career as a thirtysomething woman going through her own growing pains parallel and perpendicular to Andrew’s.
No one’s picked up Cha Cha Real Smooth yet. I wonder if it’ll become the big sale of the fest soon—it’s got the bright, earnest irresistibility of previous record-breaking acquisitions like Palm Springs. Then again, those films benefitted from the big laughs and standing ovations guaranteed by a sold-out premiere in the gigantic Eccles Theater. Will this one’s pleasures come through as loud and clear on a laptop and in a living room? What’s a crowd pleaser without the crowd to please? I hope someone bites. It’s rare, for me at least, to encounter a charm offensive at Sundance that actually charms.