Sundance 2022 Capsule Reviews: 'Calendar Girls,' 'Emily the Criminal,' 'Every Day in Kaimuki,' and 'Cha Cha Real Smooth'

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A still from CALENDAR GIRLS

Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen's Calendar Girls

There's a time and place for cinema that hits viewers in the gut with intense emotions or timely social messages. But sometimes, movies can and should refresh their audiences with feel-good stories imbued with joy – just for the sake of spreading joy. Calendar Girls fits that bill.

Calendar Girls is a documentary about a dance troupe made of women over 60 who go out in the community and dance to raise money for the Southeastern Guide Dogs charity. They dress in glamorous costumes, wigs, and elaborate hand-made headdresses and generally make a scene wherever they go. To match their high energy routines, Loohufvud and Martinsen craft a documentary that vibrates with kinesthetic motion. We meet particular women in the troupe and hear their story or perspective, but usually these narrations are matched under video portions during which the women are on the go – taking a walk, practicing a dance routine, or driving to their next appointment. An extended time spent with one member is often followed by an expressive slow motion solo dance routine performed by that member. 

That's not to say the film isn't thoughtful. In one memorable segment, a group of women congregate and converse about how they want to die. Another member has to retire because of a gastrointestinal disorder by the end of the film, and that section offers moments of reflection. The Calendar Girls each know their time on Earth is limited, but they are determined to savor the moments they have left. This is a refreshing, toe-tapping celebration of life about older women allowing themselves to do something they enjoy with no shame.

Final score: 3.5 out of 5

Aubrey Plaza as EMILY in EMILY THE CRIMINAL

John Patton Ford's Emily the Criminal

When you have a criminal record, society makes it difficult to have a sustainable lifestyle within the confines of the law. That's the hard truth explored in this well-crafted thriller with a sizzling performance by Aubrey Plaza.

Emily's (Aubrey Plaza) criminal record keeps her locked in dead-end jobs that do little to bring down her college debt. Fate steps in and Emily learns she can make easy cash by using stolen credit cards to purchase items for resell. Her entry into this world begins with skepticism and caution, but each successful steal bolsters her with cash and confidence. The manager of this operation, Youcef (a low-key sexy Theo Rossi) takes Emily under his wing and teaches her how to navigate this L.A. underworld smoothly and safely.

Emily's gritty journey comes with bumps and bruises. Things don't always go smoothly on her exchanges, but as she embraces the role of criminal, she learns from her mistakes and becomes a force to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile Emily continues to hold out hope that she can enter the world of the gainfully employed, mostly due to the well-meaning promises of her best friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) that never quite come to pass. Aubrey Plaza fully immerses herself into this role of Emily and keeps viewers invested in her story. We see her struggles to break even financially. We feel fear when she gets in too deep but admire how she never allows anyone to look down on her without consequences. John Patton Ford breaks open the myth of the American Dream with the story of Emily the Criminal. Once you have a record, the world only sees you that way – so why fight it?

Final score: 4 out of 5

Naz Kawakami as NAZ in EVERY DAY IN KAIMUKI

Alika Tengan's Every Day in Kaimukī

Naz (played by himself) has lived his whole life in the Kaimuki neighborhood of Hawaii, skateboarding with his friends and working the night shift as a local DJ. He has thought about moving many times but something always stops him from going forward. When his long-time girlfriend Sloane (Rina White) gets a job offer in New York, Naz decides it's time to move away from the nest. With his good-natured friends taking bets on if he will actually leave and Sloane having second thoughts, Naz contemplates what he truly wants and what his next step should be.

This semi-biographical low-stakes, lyrical story is more a vibe and mood than anything else. Filmed like a reality TV show, for much of the time, we just follow Naz around and watch him hanging out with his friends, going to work, and eating local cuisine. Non-professional actors portray themselves to offer an authentic portrait of life on the island.

Tangen conceived the project as a documentary, but after collaborating with Naz, the pair decided to fictionalize Naz's real-life decision to move. The results truly show off the way of life in this section of Hawaii and give a strong sense of place. Naz is the subject but Kaimuki is the unsung hero of this story.

My former life as a skater boy fangirl ensured that I vibed along with Naz and his friends. The strongest sections of the film are the uninterrupted interludes during which we soak in the nightlife and enjoy the colors and sounds of the Hawaii streets. Unfortunately, trying to put a narrative on top of this easy energy fell flat. None of the actors give compelling performances as characters. Perhaps Tangen should have stuck with the original documentary concept. The real-life story of a young person wanting to leave Hawaii is compelling enough without manufactured drama to muddy the waters.

Final score: 2 out of 5

[L-R] Cooper Raiff as ANDREW, Dakota Johnson as DOMINO in CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH

Cooper Raiff's Cha Cha Real Smooth

This crowd pleasing, romantic, and feel-good film is the sophomore feature of Cooper Raiff, who made waves with his feature film Shithouse in 2020. Andrew (Raiff) has the after-college blues. He's living at home with his mom (Leslie Mann) until he can save up money to move overseas with his girlfriend. Then, luck intervenes. After becoming the life of the party at a Bar Mitzvah he attends with his younger brother, all the moms want to hire Andrew as their party starter.

Soon Andrew has started his own business and begins to flourish. At the same time, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who is on the autism spectrum. Andrew and Domino strike up a sweet friendship that blossoms into something more as the parties roll on. As Andrew tries to navigate adult life, he begins to see the promise in the life he could have with Domino and Lola, but, of course, it's complicated.

Cooper Raiff imbues every moment of this story with heart and humor. Dakota Johnson becomes every guy's dream girl, Raiff plays the sweetest guy ever, and everyone will want to party with Lola. Raiff creates a world with good-natured characters and good-looking characters  that treat each other with love, respect, and unconditional affection. Unfortunately, these kinds of stories set viewers up for failure since real-life is hardly ever this fun. Basically Cha Cha Real Smooth is the Ted Lasso of the movie world right now. Be warned: Watching may make you resent that you never had a job as a party starter. Cha Cha Real Smooth has been acquired by Apple TV Plus. 

Final score: 4 out of 5

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