January 22, 2022

ShowbuzzDaily’s Sundance 2022 Reviews: “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul,” “Cha Cha Real Smooth” & “Alice”


HONK FOR JESUS.  SAVE YOUR SOUL (no distrib):  Scandal-ridden mega-churches aren’t exactly fresh territory for screens big (The Tears of Tammy Faye) or small (The Righteous Gemstones), with tones that range from wildly comic to solemn.  Adamma Edo’s feature debut doesn’t have much to add to the subject, but it does have Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall as the disgraced pastor and his First Lady, and that’s more than a little.  Much of the film is presented as a supposed documentary of the weeks preceding the scheduled Easter Sunday post-scandal reopening of Curtis-Lee and Trinitie Childs’s church, Wander To Greater Paths.  Things, not surprisingly, don’t go as the Childs have prayed.  Edo gives us the parody we expect of the couple’s designer clothing, outsized residence and many cars, and as the details of Curtis-Lee’s transgressions are revealed, she also wants to say something more impactful about these churches and especially the way the travails of her marriage have affected Trinitie, culminating in a Big Scene for Hall.  Both actors are certainly able to navigate the tonal shifts called for by the script, and they have the charisma necessary to convince us that their characters commanded the adoration of thousands of congregants.  If only they had more substance to chew on.  Edo’s stylistic choice, indicated by a change in aspect ratio, to cut between the “documentary” footage, including the moments the Childs didn’t intend to have seen, and the “real” movie, sometimes within the same continuous scene, seems unnecessary at many points and sometimes needlessly confusing.  Honk For Jesus, which was expanded from Edo’s short, is somewhat protracted at feature length as it makes its way to an unsurprising ending.  Despite its tremendous lead performers, the film doesn’t perform the miracle of making its familiar subject feel new.

CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH (no distrib):  Cooper Raiff plays (and writes/directs for himself to play) such nice guys that they can seem almost suspicious.  As in his debut movie Shithouse, his character Andrew is so sensitive, so funny-charming, so prone to overly enthused romantic missteps that one’s instinct (especially those of us who’ve seen Sundance’s Fresh) is to wait for the facade to be shattered and someone damaged and even dangerous to emerge.  But no, Andrew really is that guy, and at some point Raiff may see a backlash to his sheer likability.  That would be an issue for his future, though, and not for his very appealing Cha Cha Real Smooth.  As a writer-director, Raiff takes the next step from the micro-budgeted Shithouse, working on a proper mid-indie canvas of locations with a larger and more recognizable cast.  The subject matter has also moved forward.  While Raiff’s character in Shithouse was finding his feet in college, Andrew is 22 years old and dealing with the struggles of a post-graduation world.  He’s working at a mall fast-food stand and trying to save money to get to Barcelona, where the girl who doesn’t care as much about him as he does for her is a Fulbright Scholar.  His life swerves, though, when he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) at a local bat mitzvah, where Andrew’s ability to get the lazy crowd and even Lola onto the dance floor puts him into business as an emcee.  More importantly, he becomes a part of Domino and Lola’s lives.  The road to romance would seem smooth, if Domino didn’t also have a fiancee (Raul Castillo).  There isn’t much more plot than that, yet Raiff’s gift for writing conversational dialogue and his generosity toward his characters, who also include Andrew’s bipolar mother (Leslie Mann), his younger brother (Evan Assante) and his mother’s boyfriend (Brad Garrett), keep the story compelling.  In particular, he’s created a role for Johnson (who also served as a producer) that confirms the evidence in The Lost Daughter that she’s fully up to the challenges of playing complex, contradictory adults. There’s a sense in which Cha Cha Real Smooth feels like other Sundance breakouts about aimless young men (Garden State comes to mind), and even like a TV dramedy pilot.  But if there’s a formula to its lack of formula, it’s one that still works, and Cha Cha suggests that Raiff’s best work may still be ahead.

ALICE (Vertical/Roadside – March 18):  The Sundance program gives away the twist that hits about 35 minutes into Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice, so apparently it isn’t considered a spoiler.  Still, anyone who doesn’t want to know the premise should skip down.  It’s actually the same twist as last year’s horror movie Antebellum (and not dissimilar from 2004’s The Village).  We spend that opening half-hour on what appears to be an isolated Southern plantation, where brutalities are heaped upon the house and field slaves, notably the young woman Alice (Keke Palmer) and her new husband Joseph (Gaius Charles).  Even in this section of the film, though, there are strong hints that things aren’t what they seem:  where did that lighter come from, and is that the sound of a transistor radio?  Sure enough, Alice manages to escape from the plantation… only to discover herself on a freeway in 1973.  The owners, led by Bennet (Jonny Lee Miller) have continued to live, and to treat their slaves, in every awful respect as though the Civil War never happened.  This is certainly a grabby, disturbing and painfully relevant idea, but what follows is somewhat underdeveloped, as Alice meets a kindly truck driver (Common) and thanks to his news clippings, magazines and encyclopedia, she switches with alacrity from bewilderment at the fact that she lives in the 20th century to being a blaxploitation heroine, with Pam Grier as her very specific avatar.  (Even at the Django Unchained-like climax, though, Ver Linden doesn’t go full Tarantino.)  Palmer’s star performance does what it can to paper over the shortcomings of the script, and she has one powerhouse scene with Alicia Witt that suggests the movie Alice could have been.  As it is, the film is absorbing but not entirely successful as character study, social commentary or action-adventure.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."