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Age is just a number in Sundance hits 'Leo Grande' and 'Cha Cha Real Smooth'

Daryl McCormack plays a sex worker, and Emma Thompson is a retired schoolteacher in the Hulu film, <em>Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.</em>
Searchlight Pictures
Daryl McCormack plays a sex worker, and Emma Thompson is a retired schoolteacher in the Hulu film, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.

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 Hulu's 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.

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. 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 between 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.

Cooper Raiff plays a recent college grad and Dakota Johnson is a single mom in the Apple TV+ film <em>Cha Cha Real Smooth.</em>
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Cooper Raiff plays a recent college grad and Dakota Johnson is a single mom in the Apple TV+ film Cha Cha Real Smooth.
Leslie Mann, Cooper Raiff and Brad Garrett in "Cha Cha Real Smooth," premiering June 17, 2022 on Apple TV+.
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Leslie Mann, Cooper Raiff and Brad Garrett in "Cha Cha Real Smooth," premiering June 17, 2022 on Apple TV+.

The other movie streaming this week, Apple TV+'s 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. Raiff is 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 likable but not entirely satisfying movie.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.

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