My fourth dispatch from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, Rachel Lears’ To The End, Reid Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There and Nina Menkes’ Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power.
dir. Cooper Raiff, U.S. Dramatic Competition, USA, 107 minutes.
I guess it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, because I’m frankly astonished that I enjoyed a movie with this title. Less surprising is that this sophomore effort from writer/director/star Cooper Raiff just won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Audience Award, as it’s exactly the kind of movie that wins Audience Awards at film festivals — warm and friendly and a little familiar. Raiff stars as a recent college grad pining for a girlfriend gone to Barcelona. He works at a mall food court stand called Meat Sticks and falls backwards into a gig as a DJ on the bar mitzvah circuit. Our directionless young man quickly develops a crush on the mother (an incandescent Dakota Johnson) of his little brother’s autistic classmate, a flirtation culminating in one of the more unique bathroom-based bonding moments I’ve ever witnessed. This is, above all, a very nice picture, with most of the dramatic moments culminating in somebody doing something kinder and more understanding than expected. Raiff bets big on his considerable charisma, hedging with a few too many scenes in which the other characters tell him what a great guy he is. There are pleasant supporting performances by Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett, and a couple of extra endings. But what can I say? I liked spending time with these people. You probably will too.
dir. Rachel Lears, Premieres, USA, 103 minutes.
When Rachel Lears was at Sundance three years ago with the rousing crowd-pleaser Knock Down The House, she’d had the incredible luck of being on hand with a camera to film the superhero origin story of an upstart primary candidate from the Bronx named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Lears is back this year with a bummer semi-sequel once again featuring superstar AOC in a supporting role, this time chronicling the crash and burn of the Green New Deal. It’s a drifting, unfocused documentary that devolves into infighting long before everybody’s dreams of building anything back better are dashed for good by a Maserati-driving coal baron from West Virginia. (She should have called it The Fossil Fuel Empire Strikes Back.) The most compelling parts of the film examine the short-lived tenure of Justice Democrats head Alexandra Rojas at CNN, giving us a peek behind the curtain at how an opposition voice is assimilated and marginalized via limited face time and idiotic questions. The worst are scenes following the Sunrise Movement, a well-meaning bunch of kids whose ineffectual protests we watch crumble into harassment and an extremely silly hunger strike. Lears captures a couple of colorful, candid moments like Bernie Sanders having an important conversation with his mouth full, but too much of the movie is content to recap stuff we’ve already seen on the news.
dir. Reid Davenport, U.S. Documentary Competition, USA, 76 minutes.
I always say that I love going to the movies because I want to see how other people see the world. Filmmaker Reid Davenport takes that challenge literally in this eye-opening documentary. A visibly disabled man in a wheelchair, the director takes us for a spin around his adopted hometown of Oakland keeping the camera at his eye-level, so if we’re not exactly walking a mile in his shoes, we’re at least rolling with him for a little while. It’s such a simple, perfect idea I don’t know why nobody’s ever done it before. We accompany Davenport on the arduous journey from the handicapped-accessible elevator to the subway station platform – the filmmaker wryly describing how the time he got caught dodging the fare was “almost enough” to discourage him from doing it again – and around town for typical afternoons spent in search of continuous sidewalks while being gawked at by strangers blocking access ramps and assorted other indignities that are a matter of day-to-day life for the disabled. There’s a circus in town, and the big red tent inspires a running monologue about the deplorable history of freakshows, which is understandable but also unnecessary. The central visual conceit more than sustains the slender running time, making the able-bodied among us reflect on how much of our everyday routines we take for granted.
dir. Nina Menkes, Premieres, USA, 105 minutes.
This filmed lecture by director Nina Menkes positions academic Laura Mulvey’s concept of “the male gaze” as the root of all misogyny, rape culture and gender-based job discrimination in Hollywood, a thesis she attempts to illuminate via some staggeringly stupid examples. Yes, women have been objectified by men with cameras for as long as the medium has existed, and there is a psychological connection between how we see women on screens and how we think about them. But one of her key points that the film keeps coming back to is a shot from De Niro’s perspective in Raging Bull, as he jealously eyes Cathy Moriarty talking to other men. (It’s even illustrated with chintzy 3D graphics.) Anyone who has actually seen the movie can tell you that identifying misogynist tendencies in one of Jake La Motta’s POV shots isn’t quite the “gotcha” that Menkes seems to think it is, yet she asserts that Moriarty’s dialogue dropping out is why male executives don’t listen to women, instead of just the subjective view of a psychopath. (And Buffalo ’66 causes campus rape.) The whole talk is like this, citing clearly deliberate directorial choices as subconscious sexism, divorced from any context or the purpose which such scenes appear onscreen in a bad faith attempt to score points. It’s moronically small-minded and anti-art, trivializing serious issues with specious nonsense.