Cha Cha Real Smooth proves that “Sundance movies” can still succeed. For a good stretch of the ’90s and ’00s the term “Sundance movie” took on a specific meaning. Though a wide assortment of films made their bows at the fest, the Sundance name became synonymous with sometimes quirky, often bittersweet stories of everyday life. Broadly speaking, the term could be applied to everything from You Can Count on Me to Little Miss Sunshine and wasn’t always used as a compliment, particularly when applied to movies that seemed like they were trying too hard to fit the molds of past Sundance triumphs.
Last year, CODA proved a “Sundance movie” could still thrive at Sundance and this year that honor belongs to Cha Cha Real Smooth, the second feature from writer, director, and star Corbin Raiff (Shithouse). Raiff stars as Andrew, a directionless recent college graduate who moves back home to figure out what to do next, then drifts into a job as a bar mitzvah MC and an ill-defined, vaguely romantic relationship with Domino (Dakota Johnson), the single mom of an autistic teen. That sounds like, and in many ways is, a jumble of familiar indie elements. But Raiff’s openhearted, confident direction confirms him as an exciting young filmmaker and on-screen, his remarkable charm as a well-meaning, enthusiastic fuck-up contrasts beautifully with Johnson’s elusive, melancholy performance.
Descendant is a documentary in the spirit of the 1619 Project. Though slavery didn’t end until the Civil War, the United States banned the slave trade in 1808, making it a crime punishable by death. This didn’t deter the wealthy owner of a Mobile, Alabama shipyard from using his ship the Clotilda to import imprisoned Africans in 1860. Burned to cover up the crime, the Clotilda lay lost somewhere in the waters outside Mobile for years, making it an object of tremendous interest for those wanting to recover a piece of history.
Margaret Brown’s documentary Descendant covers that search but also looks beyond it. In Africatown, the neighborhood settled after the Civil War by Clotilda survivors, she finds a community surrounded…