As Sundance Film Festival rolls on and more films premiere, it’s easier to see just what a stellar line-up this year’s program is, another round of the intriguing, the entertaining and the films you’ll want to watch for when they’re released in the months ahead.
Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani began his career telling small stories about people whose lives are essentially never put on the big screen, with films like Man Push Car, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo. But since catching the eye of a few known Hollywood players, Bahrani has shifted into higher-profile feature filmmaking (At Any Price, 99 Homes, Fahrenheit 451, The White Tiger) as well as short-form documentary movies. His latest work, 2nd Chance, is his first feature-length documentary film, and it profiles a one-time pizzeria owner named Richard Davis, who went on to invent, manufacture, and earn quite a bit of money selling the Second Chance bulletproof vest to police and military units across the country.
Davis is perhaps best known for promotional videos touting the benefits of the vest, in which he shoots himself point blank in the chest and then immediately turns the gun on nearby targets to illustrate that the vest not only protects the wearer but also that the bullet’s impact isn’t severe enough to keep the wearer from returning fire in the immediate aftermath of being shot. The film actually opens with one of these demonstrations, and it’s impossible not to be horrified and impressed in a single, fleeting moment. What the documentary eventually reveals is a pattern of overconfidence and outright fraud on the part of Davis and certain members of his company that leads to the downfall of the man and Second Chance.
Bahrani’s skill as a smaller-scale storyteller serve him beautifully in 2nd Chance, which allows us to be charmed and amused by Davis, who is a gifted salesman and someone who clearly believes in preserving the safety of law enforcement and soldiers in combat. To the best of his abilities, he documented every police officer whose life was saved by his body armor, not only as a promotional tool but also as a point of pride in his work. One of those officers became Richard’s right-hand man, Aaron Westrick, who was the man’s greatest supporter but ultimately the man who betrayed him to authorities when the company began selling a new vest model that did not stop bullets and ultimately resulted in the death of several police officers.
Bahrani has interviews with every person involved with this remarkable story, including Davis, his son who runs the company with him, his ex-wives, and even Westrick, as well as the survivors of those officers who died wearing a Second Chance vest. Davis’ reaction when he’s caught being contradictory is as telling as any interview in the film, and Bahrani’s unassuming, non-accusatory tone results in getting details from all of his subjects, but especially Davis, that you simply wouldn’t assume they’d reveal.
2nd Chance is a remarkable illustration of the warped nature of the American Dream (something this film has in common with Bahrani’s previous works), and while Davis has apparently landed on his feet after the implosion of his first company, he did so under a cloud of guilt. Bahrani pulls no punches in laying out Davis’ accomplishments and devious actions, but he does so without judgment, and that may land harder than any direct accusation made in the film. (Steve Prokopy)
Cha Cha Real Smooth
Filmmaker Cooper Raiff (Shithouse) is only 24 years old, yet he’s delivered one of the most emotionally mature, fully formed dramas of this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Cha Cha Real Smooth, a film both heartwarming and heartbreaking in its honesty and vulnerability. Both writer and director, Raiff also stars here as Andrew, a new college grad who’s still pining for his girlfriend at school when he moves home to figure out his next moves. Living with his mom (Leslie Mann), stepdad (Brad Garrett) and younger brother, David (Evan Assante), the charming and chatty Andrew discovers he has a special talent to get a party going when he’s conscripted into emceeing at one of his brother’s friend’s bar mitzvahs. Soon, he’s decided he’s got enough of a knack for it to make something of a job out of it, getting the party going for teenagers and their families all over town (with ever sillier themes, a real treat).
At one such affair, Andrew meets one of David’s classmates, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) and her mother, Domino (Dakota Johnson). Lola is autistic, and Domino attends the bar mitzvahs with her to make sure she socializes, but also to be there ready to leave when Lola’s had enough. Andrew and Domino chat briefly, and the chemistry is immediate; these two are drawn to each other, despite the differences in their ages and their circumstances (she is engaged to a man who often travels for work). It helps that Andrew is a natural with Lola, able to relate to her in ways both patient and easy. As he and Domino swirl around each other, him willing to say everything that comes to mind and her keeping everything close to the vest, the two share sweet moments that seem very much like the early stages of a courtship. Knowing they can’t be together, as it often does, only seems to make Andrew want it all the more.
Cha Cha Real Smooth refers to one of those corny line dances common at things like wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, but it’s also how Andrew is trying to navigate this tumultuous moment in his life, cha-chaing this way and that, trying to get the steps right even though he doesn’t know them yet. He’s working a dead-end job, sleeping on the floor in his brother’s room and in love with a woman who, no matter how much she reciprocates his feelings, isn’t available. The chemistry between Raiff and Johnson radiates off screen, and both offer sensitive, thoughtful performances of Raiff’s script, one that navigates the many ups and downs of this time of life with far more wisdom than one might expect. At turns funny, silly, sad and poignant, Cha Cha Real Smooth is ultimately a lovely reminder of what it costs to put one’s full heart into life, and why it’s always worth it to do so. (Lisa Trifone)
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
In 2018, filmmaker Adamma Ebo released a short film titled Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. Now, a feature-length version of that 15-minute film expands upon that film’s comedic premise with a new, star-studded cast. Regina Hall is Trinity Childs, the poised and put-together wife of preacher Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), a couple ousted from their mega-church after a scandal of epic proportions. Eager to regain their standing in the community (and the power that comes with it), the two are on track to re-open their church and reassume their roles as pastor and first lady, respected by all and kept in kind by the faithful’s donations and gifts. Led with impeccable comedic timing by Hall and Brown, Honk for Jesus is a bit of an odd duck, part narrative, part mockumentary and all entertaining.
With more than a splash of Christopher Guest-ian influence (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show), Trinity and Lee-Curtis spend as much time interacting with each other as they do the cameras, retelling their story and mugging for the best angles. We learn that these two don’t always see eye-to-eye on what’s best for their church, their marriage or themselves, and it all plays out with a hilarious lack of self-awareness. Hall and Brown play off each other like jazz musicians riffing on a great idea, and both are endlessly watchable as these goofy, pompous egomaniacs. Things get even more complicated when a rival church, led by Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidence and Nicole Beharie, respectively), is slated to open on the same weekend (Easter weekend, naturally) and threatens to ruin the comeback the Childs have so meticulously planned.
Ebo makes good work of sending up an entire culture of religious fanaticism, one defined more by material goods (Trinity and her hats!) and social status than moral character and godliness, and her cast shines as they have a ball with her script. And as the Childs realize just how desperate their situation really is, even they might not be able to keep up the façade that everything is (or will be) OK. For combining social satire with genuine belly laughs delivered by an impressive cast, Honk for Jesus is, in a word, divine. (Lisa Trifone)
Built entirely from archival footage taken from both commercial broadcast television and material shot by the U.S. military, the harrowing documentary Riotsville, USA paints a portrait of the United States in the wake of the late-1960s uprisings in places like Chicago and Detroit. Working as a professional archivist for artists such as Jim Jarmusch, director Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall) seems especially suited to constructing such an infuriating work in which we see the means by which law enforcement and the military ran drills in an Army-built fake town called Riotsville that illustrated how protesters should be dealt with during demonstrations.
With soldiers portraying hippies and other activists, and spectators filling up nearby bleachers to observe, manufactured civil disobedience was acted out and met with an over-zealous response. The demonstrations led to a situation that continues today: local police being federally funded and supplied with military-style weapons, vehicles and tactical gear. It’s all the result of the Johnson administration wanting big cities to be peaceful and his Kerner Commission’s report, which was meant to look into the root causes of such riots. The report accurately blamed institutionalized racism, poverty, and class separation, but all that Johnson took from the report was that local police departments needed to be shored up and fortified.
So many parallels between this period in American history and today can be drawn that filmmaker Pettengill and editor Nels Bangerter don’t have to explicitly say it. We’re literally watching the birth of a new style of policing and the institutional power structure that leads right up to today’s calls for defunding the police. Although it takes a neutral approach to its storytelling and fact-gathering, Riotsville, USA feels angry, wondering silently why we are still dealing with these issues in these supposedly enlightened times. (Steve Prokopy)
The latest from director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) feels like a somewhat successful attempt to create a Stand By Me-like story about young girls, all of whom are best friends who are worried that once they finish the summer and start middle school, their friendships will dissolve. Although there isn’t really a lead character, it’s Daisy (Lia Barnett) and her single mother (Lake Bell) who take centerstage more often than the other characters, likely because both are dealing with the unexpected departure of Daisy’s father from her life (for reasons that aren’t made entirely clear, because it hardly matters).
While wandering the fields and woods near where they live, Daisy, Dina (Madalen Mills), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) and Lola (Sanai Victoria), they stumble upon the dead body of a man in a suit who has apparently jumped from a nearby bridge. Afraid that reporting this to police will end their final weekend before school early, they decide instead to investigate and find out who this man is and why he might have killed himself (assuming that’s what he did). Ponsoldt and co-screenwriter Benjamin Percy sprinkle a few fantastical elements into Summering, but for the most part, they stay rooted in the real world of these girls, some of whom have difficult home lives. Despite Summering being about young girls, the film isn’t afraid to stray into darker territory at times (the inclusion of a dead body might be a giveaway to that point), and that makes a considerable difference.
The film has moments of great humor (Megan Mullally plays Mari’s protective mom) blended nicely with the bigger questions about what causes friendships to dissolve, the meaning of life, and grappling with the reality of death. Compared to some of Ponsoldt’s other works, Summering may feel lighter in weight, but there’s a cross-generational appeal to the story that gives the themes and emotions on display some heft—something rare and appreciated, when compared to what is considered family-friendly material of late. I wish we’d been able to dive into all four girls’ backstories a bit more, but aside from that, the movie works more often than it doesn’t. (Steve Prokopy)
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