DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Two well-received movies from this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival began streaming this week. "Good Luck To You, Leo Grande," starring Emma Thompson as a retired widow who hires a sex worker, starts showing on Hulu. And "Cha Cha Real Smooth," starring Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson, arrives on Apple TV+. Our film critic, Justin Chang, reviews them both.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Beyond the fact that they're arriving on streaming platforms the same week, the Sundance hits "Good Luck To You, Leo Grande" and "Cha Cha Real Smooth" have a couple of things in common. They both mix comedy and drama and have somewhat odd, unwieldy titles. They both focus on a hazily defined relationship between a younger man and an older woman. And while I definitely prefer one to the other, both movies are well worth your time. The better of the two is "Good Luck To You, Leo Grande," a funny and strikingly intimate British chamber piece that unfolds almost entirely between two people in a hotel room. Emma Thompson plays Nancy, a retired schoolteacher in her 50s. And Daryl McCormack plays Leo Grande, the 20-something sex worker she's hired. After a stable but unexciting long marriage to a husband who died two years earlier, Nancy now wants to have the kind of sex she's always dreamed of. But she's also extremely nervous and embarrassed and initially tries to talk herself and Leo out of their arrangement, at which point Leo gently reminds her that there's no shame in expressing or fulfilling her desires.
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DARYL MCCORMACK: (As Leo Grande) You don't have to worry, Nancy. This is just about us tonight. So what is your fantasy?
EMMA THOMPSON: (As Nancy Stokes) I'm not sure you could really class it as a fantasy as such. It's a bit mundane for that.
MCCORMACK: (As Leo Grande) OK. Well, what would you most desire? I mean, desires are never mundane.
THOMPSON: (As Nancy Stokes) To have sex tonight with you. That's about it, really, for the moment.
MCCORMACK: (As Leo Grande) Great.
CHANG: Nancy and Leo do eventually have sex on multiple occasions. The movie, elegantly directed by Sophie Hyde, from a sharp script by Katy Brand, takes place over four separate appointments, all at the same hotel. But most of the action takes place before the sex, as the characters talk about what they're about to do, and Leo helps Nancy work through her fears. Confronting issues of ageism and sexism in a very different way from her 2019 comedy, "Late Night," Emma Thompson brilliantly teases out Nancy's desires and her insecurities about those desires. She frets about her age, her body, and the fact that she's never done anything like this before. At times, she projects her worries onto Leo, pressing him about his personal background - Leo Grande isn't his real name - and whether he ever feels degraded by his work. Daryl McCormack, an Irish actor known for the series "Peaky Blinders," is superb as a young man who's very good at doing his job and defending it from the judgments of others. The sex scenes strike a fine balance of discretion and frankness. And Thompson has one nude scene that boldly challenges the idea that a middle-aged woman's body is unworthy of the camera's attention. At times, the movie feels like a PSA aimed at promoting sex positivity and debunking outdated assumptions about women's desire. I mean that as a compliment. All PSAs should be this entertaining.
The other movie streaming this week, "Cha Cha Real Smooth," is about a much more chaste but similarly ambiguous relationship. Cooper Raiff, the movie's writer, director and star plays Andrew, a 22-year-old college grad who's living back at home with his hard-working mom, grumpy stepdad and adoring younger brother. Andrew lacks direction, but he's also charismatic and smart, with a natural gift for befriending other people. One night, he singlehandedly jumpstarts a low-energy bar mitzvah party, even talking a shy autistic teenager named Lola, Winningly played by newcomer Vanessa Burghardt, onto the dance floor. He also meets Lola's mom, Domino, played by a terrific Dakota Johnson, and becomes immediately smitten with her. Domino clearly returns Andrew's affections up to a point, but she also holds herself back for a couple of reasons. She's engaged, for one thing, and wary of introducing more upheaval into her family's life. But Andrew also provides some stability, especially when he becomes a good friend and occasional babysitter to Lola.
"Cha Cha Real Smooth" won an audience award at this year's Sundance, and it sometimes too closely resembles any number of Sundance-premiered indies about restless 20-something screw-ups. Cooper Raiff as a real talent and a charming screen presence. But while you can sense him trying to tell a nuanced, emotionally honest story, he also really, really wants you to like Andrew, to see how amazing he is despite his many questionable decisions. I wanted a little less of him and a lot more of Domino, the more intriguing and complicated figure by far. Dakota Johnson might just be one of the most interesting actors working today, and she's the reason to watch this likeable but not entirely satisfying movie.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Good Luck To You, Leo Grande" and "Cha Cha Real Smooth." On Monday's show, our interview with Rhiannon Giddens, in which she brings her banjo and sings and talks about her album Freedom Highway, featuring songs based on slave narratives. Giddens also co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which plays string band music from the African American tradition. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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