Sundance 2022: “Babysitter,” “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” & “Something in the Dirt”
The fifth round of our Sundance coverage features Monia Chokri’s Babysitter, Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth & Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead’s Something in the Dirt:
Directed by Monia Chokri and written by Catherine Léger, Babysitter (2022) starts with Cédric (Patrick Hivon) and his friends attending an MMA match, drunk out of their minds with sexism oozing out of every orifice. This leads to Cédric kissing a female news reporter on air, which then leads to his immediate suspension from work. Stuck with his girlfriend Nadine (Chokri) and their incessantly crying baby, Cédric turns to his brother Jean-Michel (Steve Laplante) for help who suggests him to write the journalist a letter of apology. But that exercise snowballs into a prospective book with multiple letters of apology from Cédric and Jean-Michel for their past misogyny. Since there’s no one to take care of the baby, Cédric hires Amy (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) for babysitting duties. However, it turns out that she isn’t just some babysitter, but a supernatural entity who has arrived to give the family (and the audience) an education.
To be frank, Babysitter is one of the most creatively filmed and philosophically dense movies of the past decade. On one side you have Colombe Raby’s insane production design, Geneviève Boivin’s eye-popping set design, Josée Deshaies’s inventive and retro cinematography, Pauline Gaillard’s pitch-perfect editing, Emile Sornin’s hypnotic score, and of course, Chokri’s deft directorial skills. On the other hand, you have this layered plot that swings for the fences and tackles misogyny, the hypocrisy of male feminism, internalized misogyny, male ego, and then takes up the daunting task of deconstructing feminine imagery that have been deemed “provocative”. On top of that, it oscillates between comedy and horror, while maintaining a level of crispness in terms of visual storytelling and character interactions that’ll give you whiplash and stick the landing on every single tonal shift. So, yes, Babysitter is nothing short of a modern masterpiece and a potential cult classic.
Every single performance in this movie is fantastic. Patrick Hivon channels this mix of naivety and wilful ignorance that is synonymous with upper-middle-class men. Steve Laplante turns himself into a punching bag to reveal how so-called male feminists are worse than out-in-the-open misogynists because you can’t really tell if they’re creeps. Chokri maintains a deadpan demeanor throughout the movie, which is hilarious on its own and allows you to project so much about the plight of women. Tereszkiewicz is an explosion of over-the-top expressions that are used to achieve both comedic and horrifying results. And the one aspect that binds all the performances is micro-reactions. It’s where the film cuts to the actor’s face for a millisecond and they’ve to nail that one important expression to have the desired effect and maintain the flow of the scene. Long story short, Babysitter is an acting masterclass as well.
All in all, Babysitter is undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year. It’s a smart takedown of every stereotype that men are known for and every stereotype that is perpetrated by men about women. It’s a celebration of womanhood and a call for women to understand their power and showmen where they actually belong. And ultimately it is a hugely entertaining movie.
Cha Chal Real Smooth
Written, directed, co-edited by Cooper Raiff, Cha Cha Real Smooth follows 22-year-old Andrew (Raiff) with no solid future prospects after graduating from college. He is stuck back at home with his mom (Leslie Mann), his stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett), and stepbrother David (Evan Assante). And with no proper job at hand, he settles for being a party starter at bar mitzvahs after being a hit among Jewish moms. It is in one of those parties where he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter Lola (Vannesa Burghardt). And the trio gets very close in a short period of time with Andrew and Domino falling in love with each other. However, it soon becomes clear that things aren’t as simple as Andrew thinks it is and he has to learn how to move forward.
As pointed out by an audience member during the post-movie Q&A session, Raiff actually tells the story of Cha Cha Real Smooth from the perspective of the “other guy”. In typical romantic comedies, you have this kind of protagonist swoop into a tumultuous relationship and have him “walk away” with the girl at the end, after some customary conflict. That re-establishes the White Knight trope and sets a dangerous precedent for men already floating with their egos. But here you get to see the protagonist proven wrong because he’s young and, despite his best intentions, he is way out of his depth. The approach to that isn’t hurtful though. Instead, it is brimming with kindness for the characters and especially for Andrew. Because Raiff understands how difficult it is to grow up and become cynical during the process. Through Andrew, he shows that being soft-hearted isn’t easy and you’re more prone to getting heartbroken. However, it’s a state-the-mind that can help untangle a lot of complex situations.
Talking about complexity, Cha Cha Real Smooth has so much to offer other than its central romance. It won’t be a stretch to say that it has some of the best secondary and tertiary characters and subplots. None of them feel like they’re being used to pad the runtime. Yes, the movie does sag a lot towards the beginning of the third act. But if you feel that the positives outweigh the negatives, you can excuse that. And the positives are Andrew’s dynamic with his family, his childhood friend, and Domino’s fiance. While Andrew’s conversations with Greg are hilarious, his scenes with his mom and his stepbrother are, for the lack of a better word, huggable. Andrew’s scenes with Lola are some of the sweetest stuff that have been put to screen. The interactions with Macy (Odeya Rush) and Joseph (Raúl Castillo) are great as well. And on top of that, the sensitivity that Raiff displays while dealing with topics such as depression, bipolar disorder, autism, and the sexual spectrum is worthy of applause.
In case you’re wondering how the performances in Cha Cha Real Smooth fare, please know that they are amazing. Raiff’s performance as Andrew feels pretty straightforward. But it’s during the end of the second act and the entirety of the third act where he starts to dig deep into the character and attack your heartstrings. Dakota Johnson as Domino is mesmerizing. She leans into the beauty and attractiveness of the character as if she’s actively hiding her vulnerable side, for a major chunk of the movie’s runtime. That’s a good thing because when Johnson opens up, you get to marvel at her capability to imbue her character with so much nuance. The sensitivity with which Vannesa portrays Lola’s autism is touching. Leslie Mann is a rom-com legend and she proves yet again why she’s the best in this genre. If you don’t cry during Mann and Raiff’s final scene, you must check if you have a heart. And although Castillo, Rush, Garrett, and Assante don’t have a lot of runtime, they nail every scene they’re in.
In conclusion, Cha Cha Real Smooth is an injection of kindness into a world that’s growing more and more cynical. And that’s why it’s mandatory viewing for all.
Something in the Dirt
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead and written by Benson, Something in the Dirt follows Levi (Benson) who moves into a no-lease apartment in the Hollywood Hills, looking to tie up loose ends before leaving Los Angeles for good. On the first day itself, he befriends his neighbor John (Moorhead) and they get to chatting like old friends while smoke bellows from the mountains behind them. One day, while helping Levi settle in, the duo witnesses a supernatural phenomenon that leaves them flabbergasted and scared. That apprehension slowly turns into a venture to document the existence of the supernatural and then sell it to a streaming giant for millions of dollars. They do promise to put a stop to it when things get too dangerous. But we all know how that goes in movies.
Without giving away too much (because there’s a lot that goes on in this movie), Something in the Dirt feels like the lovechild of Under the Silver Lake and Encounter. It is a potpourri of conspiracy theories, loneliness, an urge to find purpose, and a searing love for the city of Los Angeles. Like almost every other science-fiction movie, it looks like the protagonists are having a fun time by diving headfirst into the unknown. But as you sit with it, the realization dawns upon you that (like almost every other sci-fi movie) you are seeing human beings grapple with the futility of existence. The hyper-stylized editing, visual effects, and editing try to convince you that the fictional history of LA and the world is real. However, as Benson and Moorhead pull back to reveal a lot of other (spoil-ery) aspects that are in play, it becomes evident that the characters aren’t just trying to fool the audience but themselves as well.
The performances from Moorhead and Benson are raw and hence low-key melancholic. They absolutely sell the fact that John and Levi are rejects who have nowhere else to go but through the mythical wormhole to another dimension that doesn’t exist. In fact (and this is a personal theory), Benson’s slightly menacing edge (along with the blood on his shirt and the number of times he talks about death) hints at the notion that the movie and the movie within the movie is just an elaborate ruse to cover up a murder. There’s a fat chance that that’s not true at all. But in a movie about conspiracy theories, there’s no harm in having one of your own. That said, Something in the Dirt would have benefited from more such scenes that dove deeper into John and Levi’s psyche instead of focusing on the meta-commentary and the fictional history of LA.
To be clear, Something in the Dirt has a lot going for itself. But since Moorhead and Benson establish pretty early on what the movie is all about, its visual flourishes, pseudo-technical jargon, and twists eventually become repetitive. They are impressive to look at and a miracle considering the limitations under which it was made. However, that’s not the movie’s main draw. It’s John and Levi. And how they’ve been overlooked and buried underneath Hollywood’s glitz and glamor. Nevertheless, the Moorhead and Benson directorial is worth checking out, especially due to the endless nature of this pandemic and the conspiracy theories it births.