Review: ‘Rounding,’ starring Namir Smallwood, Sidney Flanigan and Michael Potts

June 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Namir Smallwood in “Rounding” (Photo by Nate Hurtsellers)

“Rounding” 

Directed by Alex Thompson

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the dramatic film “Rounding” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A fairly new doctor, who has a history of mental illness, starts working at a rural hospital, where he becomes fixated on a 19-year-old woman with serious respiratory problems.

Culture Audience: “Rounding” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching unrealisitic and incoherent medical dramas.

Although the medical drama “Rounding” has a very talented cast, this rambling and pointless movie is an insult to the medical profession and to viewers’ intelligence. The movie’s horror elements are time-wasting, repetitive distractions that are used as borderline tacky ways to represent mental illness. And the “medical mystery” in “Rounding” is terribly mishandled in a story about a mentally ill doctor who is convinced that something sinister is going on with one of his patients at the hospital where he works.

It’s all so disappointing, because “Rounding” director Alex Thompson made such a memorable and appealing feature-film debut with 2020’s “Saint Frances,” a comedy/drama about a nanny who experiences an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy while caring for a precocious 6-year-old girl named Frances. Thompson should be commended for taking the risk of having his second feature film as a drastic departure from his first feature film, but “Rounding” is most definitely a “sophomore slump.” “Rounding” is almost a direct opposite movie to “Saint Frances” in every way, including the quality of the filmmaking.

“Saint Frances” was written by Kelly O’Sullivan, who starred as the nanny in the movie. She also has a supporting role in “Rounding” as a hospital doctor. “Rounding” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) was written by Alex Thompson and Christopher Thompson, and it’s a far inferior screenplay to “Saint Frances.” “Rounding” is as dull as “Saint Frances” is lively.

One of the biggest strengths of “Saint Frances” was the authentic-sounding and witty dialogue, as well as characters that were written as people with believable personalities. By contrast, “Rounding” looks and sounds very phony, with empty characters acting out unrealistic scenarios. It’s also very hard to care about any of the characters in “Rounding,” because they (and the rest of this movie) are written as incomplete sketches.

The title of “Rounding” refers to the word used for medical professionals making the rounds to visit patients, usually at a hospital. In the production notes for “Rounding,” Alex Thompson makes a statement that reads, in part: “I grew up in a family of medical professionals. Dinner conversations often included black lung and bronchoscopies, and when asked how his day went, my father can be relied upon to reply, ‘I didn’t kill anyone.’ At the start of the [COVID-19 pandemic] lockdown in Kentucky, he told me about a patient he’d seen frequently as a young resident whose story was strange and who he thought about often.”

It’s astonishing that Alex Thompson says he comes from a family of medical professionals, because “Rounding” is so full of plot holes and ridiculous nonsense, it looks like it was made by a director who didn’t bother consulting with any medical professionals. Adding to the movie’s problems, it seems like Alex Thompson couldn’t decide if he wanted to make a medical mystery drama, a psychological thriller or a horror movie. “Rounding” has elements of all three genres, but it’s mostly a medical drama with some psychological and horror scenes thrown into the mix in redundant ways.

“Rounding” begins with a scene showing the death of an elderly hospital patient named Vivian Spurlock (played by Cheryl Lynn Bruce), who has an unnamed respiratory condition, because she needs to breathe through a tube in her throat. Vivian is being attended to by Dr. James Hayman (played by Namir Smallwood), who’s a resident at this unnamed hospital in this unnamed U.S. city with a large urban population. Before going into Vivian’s hospital room, where she is the only patient, James stopped by a medication supply room to get a liquid drug that viewers find out later is potassium chloride. He’s seen by a security guard named Bart (played by Alex Wilson), and they exchange pleasant small talk.

James is very calm and measured when he goes into Vivian’s room. They talk for a little bit before he says to her: “I found that poem you remembered. Are you sure this is what you want?” Vivian replies, “I’m sure.” James removes the tube from Vivan’s throat and puts the potassium chloride in Vivian’s intravenous fluid bag. At this point, it’s easy for viewers to see that James is about to kill Vivian with a lethal dose. But is it euthanasia, or is it murder?

As the potassium chloride starts to flow through Vivian’s body, James reads her the poem that she requested. It’s implied that she asked James to help her commit euthanasia, and her request included that he would read this poem as she lay dying on the hospital bed. But something goes terribly wrong.

Vivian changes her mind about dying, and she begs James to help her live. But it’s too late. The overdose has already been administered. Vivian dies. James calls for help, and several hospital workers rush into the room. James is seen running out of the room and collapsing in a hospital hallway.

The next scene takes place two months later. James is in an office meeting with a supervisor named Dr. Justin Groff (played by Ed Kross), who is unhappy with what James has just told him: James has decided to accept a job offer at a rural hospital named Greenville, which is in an unnamed part of the United States. It’s mentioned (but never shown in the movie) that James had a nervous breakdown after Vivian’s death and was in a psychiatric facility for it. Because of this breakdown, James was on a leave of absence from this hospital job that he’s about to quit.

James has been released from the facility, but he’s supposed to be in ongoing therapy for his mental health. Justin thinks that it’s too early for James to start working again, but James disagrees. “You barely started counseling,” Justin tells James. “You don’t strike me as a country mouse,” he adds of James moving to a rural area to work at a hospital with less resources than the hospital that James is leaving. However, James is undeterred. He’s going to work at Greenville Hospital.

This meeting with James and Justin is the scene where “Rounding” immediately starts to go downhill. First of all, a medical examination would reveal that Vivian’s cause of death was a potassium chloride overdose. Therefore, Vivian’s death would be investigated as suspicious and probable homicide. It’s no mystery who was the last person to see Vivian alive. And that same person was seen in the medical supply room, where some potassium chloride has gone missing.

In real life, most hospitals in large urban areas have strict ways of making sure that employees don’t steal medication from the supply room. And even if this hospital didn’t have those policies in place, James was still seen taking medication from the supply room, and then Vivian died shortly after he visited her room, and he was the last person to see her alive. At the very least, James would have to undergo an investigation, which is never mentioned in the movie.

But “Rounding” wants viewers to be too ignorant to think about or know about all of these real-life facts. Not only does James never undergo an investigation over Vivian’s death, it’s mentioned later in the movie that he also got a recommendation letter from his supervisor (presumably Dr. Groff) to take this new job at Greenville Hospital. The entire flimsy premise of “Rounding” is reliant on viewers believing that James experienced no consequences or scrutiny for a patient dying of a potassium chloride overdose while under his watch.

James is a doctor, but apparently he’s not making enough money to afford more than being able to rent a room in a non-descript house when he moves to this unnamed rural area. (He might be heavily in debt from student loans.) His middle-aged landlord Mrs. Watts (played by Meighan Gerachis) is disheveled and world-weary. She tells James that the room he’s renting used to be her son’s room, which is why it still has a lot of his belongings from his childhood. Mrs. Watts also mentions that her son didn’t approve of renting out the room, but now her son has been “dead for a few years. He was struggling with depression.”

And what a coincidence: Another young doctor at Greenville Hospital is also renting a room in Mrs. Watts’ home. His name is Carol Hontolas (played by Max Lipchitz), and his only purpose in the movie is to be a co-worker who has the ability to see how James acts when James is at home. Carol is a friendly and upbeat person who seems to want the best for an obviously troubled James.

If people start watching “Rounding” by thinking it will be a horror movie, they might mistakenly believe that this house will be a source of mystery and intrigue. It’s not. In fact, there was really no point in even having the scene where Mrs. Watts had to mention that James is now living in a room where her dead son once lived. It’s one of many examples of pointless scenes in the movie.

James’ supervisor at Greenville Hospital is Dr. Emil Harrison (played by Michael Potts), whose actions and words become increasingly odd and unprofessional as the story continues. But when Emil first meets James, he’s warm, welcoming and seems to care a great deal about providing empathetic medical treatment. He even gives James a tour of Greenville, which he describes as a hospital that prides itself on having a personal touch with its patients.

Emil is vaguely aware that James had some problems at the hospital where James previously worked, but Emil assumes it was burnout from working in a large urban hospital. He also knows that Emil has some mental health issues, but Emil doesn’t really know all the details. The movie shows whether or not Emil finds out the truth about James’ background.

Emil explains to James why Greenville is open to giving inexperienced doctors who are second-year residents (such as James) a chance to work there: “We’re such a flexible program.” Emil also tells James that Greenville will give James a “fresh start” and a “rural patient experience.” Emil adds, “There’s a real ability to make an impact here.”

At Greenville, James works closely with Carol and two other young doctors, who all go on rounds with him: Dr. Kayla Matthews (played by O’Sullivan) and Dr. Mac MacLauren (played by Bradley Grant Smith), who are ultimately fairly useless characters. Kayla is completely generic and forgettable and a waste of O’Sullivan’s actor talent. At first, Mac seems to be an antagonist to James, because he acts superior to James and seems to be waiting for James to do something wrong. However, whatever storyline that could’ve been developed for this Mac/James rivalry goes nowhere. James ultimately proves to be his own worst enemy.

There’s a scene that reveals that Mac and James attended the same middle school and hadn’t seen each other in years until James came back to his rural area to work for Greenville Hospital. It’s the movie’s first mention that James spent at least part of his childhood in this rural area, but then “Rounding” completely ignores this important information. When Mac sees James for the first time in years, it’s outside of a bar where some of the hospital doctors are hanging out. Mac says to James: “I hear you’ve been having a rough time.” James defensively brushes off this comment by abruptly saying, “I’m fine.”

However, whatever problems James was having before he moved to this rural area are not going away just because he’s changed where he lives. James predictably continues to have whatever mental illness that he probably had before Vivian’s death. Expect to see James have numerous hallucinations involving some shadowy monsters in murky locations. These “horror” scenes aren’t very scary and are fairly short. Sometimes, James has these hallucinations on the job, so he’s shown freaking out in a hospital hallway or cowering in fear in a back room.

James also has blackouts on the job. Some of these blackouts last for hours. He wakes up to find a co-worker saying that people were looking for him, and he was expected to be somewhere hours ago. What kind of hospital employee or medical worker could get away with this incompetence? Only in a dumb movie like “Rounding.”

Even when he’s clearly unfit to do his job, James is never really held accountable. He’s just told to stay away from a certain patient after this patient becomes his obsession. That patient is 19-year-old Helen Adso (played by Sidney Flanigan), who is bedridden in the hospital after having a series of respiratory problems.

When James sees Helen in the hospital for the first time, he’s startled, because a number of days earlier, he saw Helen shoplifting candy in a grocery store. During this shoplifting incident (another pointless scene), Helen and James made eye contact with each other. She knew he saw her shoplifting, but Helen and James didn’t say anything to each other.

Helen has asthma, but she’s been in this hospital for symptoms that are definitely not asthmatic. Doctors can’t seem to diagnose Helen’s mystery respiratory illness. James notices from Helen’s medical records that Helen has been admitted to the hospital six times so far that year. James raises these concerns to Emil, who explains that Helen gets treated at the hospital when Helen’s lung specialist goes on vacation. James also questions the hospital’s medical test results for Helen.

Emil gets defensive and tries to make James feel like James is being paranoid and insubordinate whenever James is skeptical about how the hospital is treating Helen. Emil lets James run his own tests on one occasion, but Emil mostly acts like James is being a nuisance for constantly questioning the hospital’s treatment of Helen. Mac, Kayla and Carol also tell James not to question the hospital’s procedures.

Emil often leads Mac, Kayla, Carol and James on group “roundings” at the hospital. One day, during a rounding, Emil gives James the task of telling a patient named Mr. Jones (played by Edwin Lee Gibson) that Mr. Jones has Stage 4 lung cancer and has only three to six months to live. It doesn’t go well, because James is too aloof and clinical in telling this news, and Mr. Jones gets angry at how James is talking to him. Emil, Mac, Kayla and Carol see this outburst.

Later, Emil tells James in a private meeting that James needs to go to a seminar to improve James’ bedside manner. When James asks Emil if he’s doing anything wrong, Emil insists that all the hospital’s new doctors have to take this seminar. These seminar scenes just waste more screen time and ultimately just show that James hates being in an environment that resembles therapy and where people have to talk about feelings.

Helen has a very overprotective mother named Karen (played by Rebecca Spence), who is always with Helen in the hospital. Karen notices that James has taken an interest in Helen that goes beyond a normal doctor/patient relationship. It predictably leads to James and Karen clashing with each other.

While James is battling his personal demons, he suddenly wants to be an investigator into Helen’s mystery respiratory illness. He gets very upset when he finds out that Helen will be getting a lung transplant. He thinks this operation is unnecessary, while Karen and Emil vehemently disagree. James insists that they have to listen to what Helen’s body says. Yes, it’s that type of movie with this type of hokey dialogue.

“Rounding” makes very superficial and awkward attempts to make it look like James is building a friendly rapport with Helen. But it all looks so staged and unconvincing. And he comes off looking like a creepy older man who becomes obsessed with befriending a vulnerable teenage patient when she gets out of the hospital. James says and does things that are very inappropriate and would get most hospital doctors suspended or fired, although “Rounding” obviously wants James to look like a protagonist who should get sympathy from viewers.

James becomes so obsessed with Helen, he does some stalking and theft, which won’t be further detailed in this review. He also begins to think that Helen’s mystery illness is being caused by her mother Karen, who has set up an online fundraising collection for Helen (similar to a GoFundMe account), which has raised a six-figure sum so far. Munchausen syndrome (causing an illness to get sympathy and attention) is mentioned several times in the movie. But is Helen’s illness actually Munchausen syndrome caused by Helen, is it Munchausen syndrome by proxy caused by Karen, or is it something else?

The character of Helen could have been fascinating, but she has mostly a blank personality in this movie. “Rounding” is just a showcase for James’ neuroses and hallucinations, which become uninteresting in their repetitiveness. Helen’s lack of character development in “Rounding” is a big letdown and an underuse of Flanigan’s talent. Flanigan made an impressive feature-film debut starring in the 2020’s critically acclaimed drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” in which she played a 17-year-old who travels from Pennsylvania to New York to get an abortion.

“Rounding” gets worse, as James’ mental health and his unprofessionalism are never adequately addressed. Emil gets more and more aggravating as a supervisor who dismisses obvious problems, as if these problems will solve on their own. There’s a scene toward the end of the film where James tells Emil that he’s having nightmares. Emil just responds cheerfully and says, “You’re sleeping.”

This disconnected reaction is supposed to show Emil’s tendency to be out-of-touch and in denial, but it’s just an example of how the Emil character is poorly written. Potts gives an adequate performance in an awful role that will have a lot of viewers more irritated with Emil than any other character by the end of the movie. As bad as James is on the job, Emil is in many ways worse, because Emil is a supervisor who lets so many medically and legally problematic things happen at the hospital, with Emil’s full knowledge.

Forget about getting any backstories for any of the characters in “Rounding.” There are no meaningful details about the backgrounds of any of these characters, except it’s repeated that James is emotionally attached to his mother, whom he says inspired him to become a doctor. There are a few scenes where James talks to his loving and supportive mother on the phone.

“Rounding” goes off on a mishandled tangent where James acts like a private investigator. But considering his mental instability, viewers will question if what James finds out is real or possibly a figment of his imagination. James gets an abscessed wound on his left foot, so the movie shows him limping around a lot, with no explanation for why he doesn’t get this wound treated. Not surprisingly, the wound gets worse.

Smallwood’s performance as James isn’t bad, but it’s not outstanding, and probably would’ve been better if this movie’s screenplay and direction were up to basic standards of engaging storytelling. “Rounding” has a surprise “reveal” at the end, which completely falls flat, and brings up some major questions that the movie never answers. By the end of “Rounding,” it becomes obvious that the filmmakers have made an atrocious mockery of the medical profession and mental illness, just to make a movie that’s trying to be artsy but is in fact an erratic mess.

Review: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth,’ starring Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Vanessa Burghardt and Evan Assante

January 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Cha Cha Real Smooth”

Directed by Cooper Raiff

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey and briefly in New Orleans, the comedy/drama “Cha Cha Real Smooth” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A recent college graduate struggles to find the right career path for himself as he falls in love with a divorced mother who is engaged to a lawyer. 

Culture Audience: “Cha Cha Real Smooth” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in post-college coming-of-age movies.

Leslie Mann, Cooper Raiff and Brad Garrett in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Filmmaker/actor Cooper Raiff is in danger of typecasting himself in his movies as a dorky man-child, but “Cha Cha Real Smooth” has enough charm about awkward romances and life transitions to make up for some of the movie’s annoying self-awareness. The comedy/drama “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is the second feature film written and directed by Raiff, who has repeated certain themes and character scenarios in his two movies so far. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Raiff’s first feature film was the comedy/drama “Shithouse,” which was supposed to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, but all of SXSW was cancelled as an in-person event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 SWSW Film Festival still awarded jury prizes, and “Shithouse” received the festival’s top award: Best Narrative Feature. Later that year, “Shithouse” had a limited theatrical release and became available on home video, with very little fanfare, although the movie got mostly positive reviews.

In “Shithouse,” Raiff plays a homesick Texas “mama’s boy” named Alex Malmquist, who’s a freshman at an unnamed Los Angeles university, where he meets and falls in love with his dorm’s resident assistant named Maggie Hill (played by Dylan Gelula), who plays “hard to get” in their relationship. In “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” Raiff plays Andrew, a 22-year-old “mama’s boy” and recent Tulane University graduate, who moves back in with his unnamed mother (played by Leslie Mann) and stepfather Greg (played by Brad Garrett) in an unnamed city in New Jersey. Andrew falls in love with a divorced mother in her 30s named Domino (played by Dakota Johnson), who plays “hard to get” in their relationship. And in Domino’s case, she really is “hard to get”: She’s engaged to a workaholic lawyer named Joseph (played by Raúl Castillo), who travels a lot for his job.

Just like in “Shithouse,” the tone and pace of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” have meandering qualities that work well in many parts of the movie and not-so-well in other parts. And once again, Raiff plays a loner protagonist pining for a love interest who is less emotionally available than he is. In many ways, “Shithouse,” which is a very conversation-driven movie, seems like a college campus version of director Richard Linklater’s 2005’s romance movie “Before Sunrise,” starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” widens the scope of the protagonist’s world beyond a college campus and into the “real world” of a young adult living with parents while trying to find a full-time job.

Just like Linklater does in his movies about young people in America, Raiff has his young protagonists feeling a lot of yearning and discontent over how they’re living their lives, and the filmmaker blends this angst with party scenes and some goofy comedy. Unlike Linklater, Raiff is an actor who makes himself the star of the movies that he writes and directs. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” has more emotional depth and more character development than “Shithouse” does, with some hard-hitting real-life issues that are handled with sensitivity. However, there are moments in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” where Raiff’s ego is on display, because multiple times in the movie, different women tell the character he plays how adorable he is.

Andrew studied marketing at Tulane, and he hasn’t really figured out what career path he wants to take. His college sweetheart Maya (played by Amara Pedroso Saquel) has a Fulbright Scholarship to do graduate studies in Barcelona, Spain. An early scene in the movie shows Andrew and Maya at a party, shortly before graduating from Tulane. Maya asks Andrew what his post-graduation plans are, and he half-jokingly says that he wants to go to Barcelona. The expression on Maya’s face seems to say, “That’s not going to happen. And I don’t want it to happen.”

Andrew then says he’s thinking about finding a job at a non-profit. The movie then fast-forwards to Andrew, after he has graduated from Tulane. He’s working behind the counter at a fast-food place called Meat Stix, which sells meat on sticks, such as corndogs. Obviously, it’s a job that he didn’t expect to have after graduating from Tulane. Andrew’s graduation is never shown. It’s also never shown how Maya and Andrew decided to define their relationship before she moved to Barcelona.

But it should come as no surprise that Andrew thinks that he and Maya are more committed to each other than they really are. While he’s in Barcelona, Maya won’t answer his messages. And when Andrew checks Maya’s social media, he finds out that she’s been hanging out with a new guy, who’s probably her new boyfriend. Andrew soon meets another woman who preoccupies his thoughts.

One of the repeated themes of “Shithouse” and “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is that the protagonist has a tendency to fall for women who are older (even it’s by a few years), more experienced in dating, and/or more emotionally mature. The opening scene of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” foreshadows that Andrew has this preference, when he’s shown at 12 years old at a school dance. In this flashback scene, Andrew (played by Javien Mercado) has a crush on a woman in her 20s named Bella (played by Kelly O’Sullivan), one of the dance chaperones.

Andrew confesses to his mother that he’s in love with Bella. “I know she’s old, but I think she loves me too,” Andrew says. After the dance, Andrew asks Bella out on a date. She lets him down gently by telling him: “This is the most flattered I’ve ever felt, but I’m old.” A dejected Andrew pouts in the back seat of his parents’ car during their drive home, with his parents in the front seat, and his father (played by Chris Newman) driving. As the car is in motion, Andrew’s mother climbs in the back seat to comfort Andrew. Andrew’s father is never seen or mentioned in the movie again.

It’s open to interpretation why Andrew’s biological father is not discussed in the movie. He could be dead or divorced from Andrew’s mother. Either way, he’s definitely not in the family’s life anymore, and Andrew’s mother is now married to Greg, who’s an executive at a pharmaceutical company. In “Shithouse,” the father of the protagonist was dead, and the protagonist’s mother also didn’t have a name.

And just like in “Shithouse,” the protagonist of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” has a younger sibling who adores and looks up to him. In “Shithouse,” it’s a younger sister. In “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” it’s a younger brother. Andrew’s younger brother David (played by Evan Assante), who’s about 12 or 13 years old, is a good kid who’s insecure about how to date girls. It’s implied that David and Andrew have the same biological father, because they both call Greg by his first name, not “Dad.”

Andrew and Greg dislike each other, which is apparently how it’s been between them for years. They don’t get in violent fights, but they find ways to insult each other. Andrew is more blatant about it than Greg is. Greg isn’t impressed that Andrew doesn’t really know what he wants to do with his life. Andrew thinks that Greg is too uptight and judgmental. Andrew’s mother tries to keep the peace between Andrew and Greg, but she has her own issues: She happens to be medically diagnosed as bipolar.

Many of David’s schoolmates are Jewish boys who are bar mitzvah age, and he gets invited to these bar mitzvahs. It’s why Andrew, David, their mother and Greg are at a bar mitzvah, where Andrew first sees Domino. It’s “attraction at first sight” for Andrew. Domino is with her daughter Lola (played by Vanessa Burghardt), who is about 14 or 15 years old and somewhere on the autism spectrum. When Andrew finds out that Domino and Lola are mother and daughter, and not sisters, he’s amazed because he thinks Domino looks too young to be the mother of a teenager.

Andrew thinks the party DJ isn’t doing a very good job of getting people on the dance floor, so he requests that the DJ play Lipps Inc.’s 1979 hit “Funky Town.” And the next thing you know, Andrew is leading a group dance to “Funky Town.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Expect to see several dance scenes showing close-ups of Andrew bopping up and down, like he’s on a pogo stick, sometimes in slow-motion. He’s not a very good dancer, but that’s the point, because Andrew is so unapologetically dorky that it’s supposed to be endearing. Too bad Raiff has to constantly point this out by having women in the movie repeatedly tell Andrew how adorable he is.

Andrew will be going to some more bar mitzvahs in this movie, once he finds out he has a knack for choosing the right dance songs, mingling with party guests, and making sure that people at a party have a good time. Andrew introduces himself to Domino and Lola at the bar mitzvah where he first sees them. Andrew and Domino then mildly flirt each other. Andrew also develops an immediate rapport with Lola, who is socially withdrawn and is treated like an outcast by the other kids at the party. Because of her autism, Lola has been held back a few grades, so she’s a few years older than her classmates.

At one point in the evening, Domino bets Andrew $300 that he can’t get Lola to dance on the dance floor. Of course, Andrew wins the bet. It’s the beginning of Domino’s attraction to Andrew. She doesn’t tell him right away that she’s engaged to be married, but eventually she does tell him on another night. The movie also makes a point of mentioning that Domino and Andrew are not Jewish, but they keep seeing each other at bar mitzvahs.

Meanwhile, after the party where Andrew and Domino have met, about five mothers surround Andrew and tell him how adorable he is and that they want him to be a DJ at their children’s upcoming bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. And that’s how Andrew starts his own party DJ business, which he calls Jig Conductor. Andrew enlists David to do a homemade promotional video for Jig Conductor, but the video doesn’t go as planned, in one of the movie’s contrived comedy scenes.

Greg is skeptical about Andrew being a party DJ as a job. When Greg asks Andrew how much Andrew will get paid for this type of work, Andrew sarcastically answers, “I think they said just under what an unhappy pharmaceutical exec makes.” Andrew makes other verbal digs at Greg in other scenes where Andrew essentially tells Greg that he thinks just because Greg is miserable, Greg doesn’t have to make Andrew miserable too.

Andrew sees Domino and Lola again at his first bar mitzvah job as a party DJ, but this event doesn’t go so well. First, Andrew gets fired before the party ends because he was rude to a rabbi who was at the party, and Andrew got involved in a fight with a boy who was bullying Lola. Second, something happens to Domino at the party which is a harrowing experience for her. Andrew finds out and comes to her rescue, which further deepens their growing bond.

Domino then hires Andrew to be a babysitter for Lola. The movie has several sweet-natured scenes of Andrew and Lola becoming friends. Lola is intelligent, kind and very socially awkward. Before Andrew comes into her life, her only friend was her beloved pet hamster Jerry. Lola is very honest, and Andrew likes her candor. Andrew also feels protective of Lola because he knows that she gets bullied by her schoolmates.

Domino and Andrew inevitably become closer too. When Andrew and Domino kiss for the first time, Domino is the one who makes the first move. But what about Joseph? He’s in Chicago a lot because of a client’s lawsuit. Andrew eventually meets Joseph, who is polite but somewhat emotionally closed-off and not very talkative. Joseph remains a mystery throughout the entire movie, with nothing really revealed about him except that he’s a very busy lawyer.

The rest of the movie is about Andrew falling in love with Domino, who sends mixed signals about how far she wants the relationship to go with him. At one point, Domino tells Andrew, “I feel very comfortable with you. I don’t know why.” Later in the movie, Domino says to Andrew: “You know what you look like now? You look like the sweetest person ever.”

However, there are some red flags that Andrew wants to ignore, such as Domino telling him that she would like to move to Chicago to start a new life and to possibly go to school to get her college degree. Domino says that Joseph would rather stay in New Jersey. (“Cha Cha Real Smooth” was actually filmed in Pennsylvania.) And there’s an age difference and lifestyle difference between Andrew and Domino that they don’t really discuss until much later in the movie.

Andrew takes the way that Domino gets emotionally close to him as a sign that Domino and Joseph are having problems in their relationship. Andrew doesn’t seem too concerned with finding out how long Domino and Joseph have been together, or when they plan to get married. Andrew doesn’t ask these questions, but Domino is also somewhat guarded about certain things in her life. She eventually tells Andrew that she has abandonment issues because her ex-husband (Lola’s father) left her and Lola. Domino also reveals that she’s been depressed ever since she was a child.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” gets its title from a line in DJ Casper’s 2000 hit “Cha Cha Slide,” a novelty tune that’s played in one of the movie’s bar mitzvah scenes. The movie has a few subplots, such as Andrew giving David romance advice because David has a crush on a classmate named Margaret (played by Brooklyn Ramirez), who might have a romantic interest in David too. Andrew also casually dates a former high school schoolmate named Macy (played by Odeya Rush), who was his crush in high school.

Maya isn’t too far from his mind, because Andrew confides in his mother that he’s saving his money to eventually go to Barcelona. Andrew claims his Barcelona trip has nothing to do with Maya, who’s been ignoring him, but Andrew’s mother looks like she doesn’t believe him. Andrew also applies for a job at a non-profit group called Hope Loves a Friend, which helps underprivileged and disabled kids.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” has characters with disabilities or mental illnesses, which are issues that weren’t in “Shithouse.” These issues are handled in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” with mixed results. Lola isn’t depicted as an offensive stereotype of autism, but as a fully developed human being with clear thoughts and feelings. The scenes with Lola and Andrew are among the best in the movie.

However, the bipolar condition of Andrew’s mother seems like a plot device that’s never realistically shown or explored in a meaningful way. It’s mentioned a few times in the movie that Andrew’s mother has had recent “manic” episodes in public, but these manic episodes and her depression are never shown. Instead, her entire personality in the movie is as an even-tempered, supportive mother.

It’s as Raiff just wanted to tack on a “mental illness” description for the mother to make it seem like this movie is deeper than it really is. At Andrew’s job interview with Hope Loves a Friend, Andrew mentions that his mother is bipolar as a way to prove that he’s qualified for the job. Then, he blurts out a lie about another member of his family having a mental disability, then he promptly admits that it’s a lie. It’s a moment when the movie namechecks a disability for a cheap laugh, especially when viewers find out if Andrew got the job or not.

Domino is another person in Andrew’s life who’s had a long history of depression. And that part of her life and personality are shown in fleeting moments. Mostly, Domino seems like someone who doesn’t really think she’ll find true happiness, but she wants stability, which she thinks she can get in her relationship with Joseph. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” doesn’t seem to want to show anything realistic when it comes to the hardest things people with depression or bipolar disorder have to deal with in their everyday lives.

Andrew can be compassionate, but he can be self-absorbed in many ways. For example, when things in Andrew and Domino’s relationship aren’t going the way that Andrew hoped they would, he takes his anger and frustration out on his brother David. When David asks Andrew for some love-life advice, Andrew snaps at David and verbally insults him in a very mean-spirited way. It’s supposed to show how “human” Andrew is and that this “nice guy” isn’t so perfect.

The dialogue in this movie can sometimes be clunky, but there are also scenes where the dialogue is very realistic. Raiff, Burghardt and Assante stand out as giving believable performances. Johnson has played many coquettish types before, Mann has played many nurturing mothers before, and Garrett has played many grumpy characters before, so all three of these cast members don’t do much that’s new in this movie. It remains to be seen if Raiff is going to follow the Woody Allen path of filmmaking, by playing a version of himself in the movies where he’s the director, writer and protagonist star. Raiff seems capable of playing more than this type of neurotic lovelorn character, so it will be interesting to see if he can show more acting range in his future movies.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” has some unanswered questions that aren’t really plot holes, but they indicate that the screenplay needed improving. Viewers might wonder: “What happened to Andrew’s father?” “If Lola is such an outcast at her school, why does she keep getting invited to these bar mitzvahs?” (Lola and Domino go to three of them during the course of the movie.) “How have Andrew and David been affected by their mother’s bipolar condition?” By throwing in all of the issues and not adequately addressing them all, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” looks like it bit off more than it could chew. There was a simple clarity about “Shithouse” that’s missing in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a series of scenes and vignettes that have just enough in each scene to resonate with viewers. Andrew is like a lot of recent college graduates who have to move back in with parents and who don’t have their entire lives figured out yet. He’s a flawed “nice guy” who likes to make people feel good about themselves, but he can also say mean and stupid things when he’s drunk. Raiff’s greatest strength as a filmmaker is showing these human frailties of people doing the best that they can to accept themselves in a world where they can get rejected and things don’t always go as planned.

UPDATE: Apple Studios will release “Cha Cha Real Smooth” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on June 17, 2022.

Review: ‘Saint Frances,’ starring Kelly O’Sullivan and Ramona Edith Williams

February 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kelly O’Sullivan and Ramona Edith Williams in “Saint Frances” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Saint Frances” 

Directed by Alex Thompson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago, the comedy/drama “Saint Frances” has a cast of predominantly white (with some African American and Latino) characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 34-year-old single woman who says she doesn’t really like kids ends up being a nanny to a precocious and often-bratty 6-year-old girl.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to independent movie fans with open-minded viewpoints on parenting issues, since abortion and lesbian mothers are major parts of the story.

Ramona Edith Williams and Kelly O’Sullivan in “Saint Frances” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The dramedy film “Saint Frances” avoids a lot of maudlin clichés that are found in stories about nannies and instead tells a very funny and sometimes emotionally raw story about how a nanny and a child she cares for make an impact on each other’s lives. The nanny is 34-year-old Bridget (played by Kelly O’Sullivan, who wrote the “Saint Frances” screenplay), an underachiever in Chicago who’s kind of drifting through life with no specific plans.

She’s quit her job as a restaurant server to become a temporary nanny to a precocious 6-year-old named Frances, nicknamed Franny (played by a very adorable Ramona Edith Williams), in the summer before Franny begins kindergarten. Franny’s parents are a lesbian couple in their 40s—no-nonsense attorney Annie (Lily Mojekwu) and sensitive homemaker Maya (played by Charin Alvarez), who’s recently given birth to their second child, a son named Wally.

Bridget is the kind of person who privately says she doesn’t really like kids and isn’t sure if or when she wants to be a mother. She also hates her job as a server, so that’s why she jumps at the chance to try something new by being a nanny. At first, she and Franny don’t really get along too well, since Franny can be hyperactive and bratty, while Bridget can be impatient and unprepared.

And Bridget wasn’t exactly the first choice to be the nanny. During her interview with Annie and Maya, when she was asked if she has any siblings, Bridget replied that she has a younger brother, but they don’t have much in common with each other because, “He’s married, has a house, and is very responsible.” But the nanny who was originally hired was let go due to incompatibility, so Annie and Maya hired Bridget out of desperation, since she was available to start the job immediately.

Meanwhile, shortly before she started her nanny job, Bridget began dating a 26-year-old server named Jace (played by Max Lipchitz), whom she met at a house party and hooked up with that same night. Bridget wants to keep things casual between them and even tells Jace that even though they have sex with each other, they’re not in a relationship. The morning after their first sexual encounter was awkward and comical, because they both found out that Bridget had started her menstruation period during the encounter, and the full effects could be seen in the light of day. Bridget and Jace were both able to laugh about it though.

Bridget’s menstruation and other biological feminine bleeding are mentioned and seen several times in this film. All of that blood is usually played for laughs in the movie, but according to “Saint Frances” screenwriter O’Sullivan, the reason why Bridget’s blood gets so much attention in the story is to realisitically show women’s gynecological functions that usually aren’t seen or discussed in movies.

In an open letter, O’Sullivan explained why she chose to have her Bridget character bleed so much in the film: “‘Saint Frances’ endeavors to normalize and destigmatize those parts of womanhood that we’re encouraged not to talk about. I wanted not only to talk about these subjects, but to show them onscreen unapologetically, realistically. This movie could be called ‘There Will Be Blood 2,’ and a sense of humor is a vital intention of the film.”

For the first time in her life, Bridget is responsible for taking care of a child. She admits that she doesn’t know what she’s doing a lot of the time. And it’s perhaps because of that honesty that Franny starts to warm up to Bridget and vice versa. Franny is a curious child who asks a lot of questions, which have the effect of Bridget examining her own life and beliefs.

That doesn’t mean that things go smoothly in their relationship. While spending time at a park, Franny gets a few unintentional bumps and bruises when Bridget lets Franny out of her sight for a few moments And when Bridget and Franny are at a library, and Bridget temporarily leaves Franny alone at a table to use the restroom, Bridget comes back to find out that Franny has emptied all of the contents of Bridget’s purse on the table (including her tampons) and yells out for everyone to hear: “Are you on your period?”

While she’s adjusting to her new job, Bridget also finds out that she’s pregnant. The pregnancy is unplanned, Jace is the father, and Bridget immediately decides to have an abortion. Jace is supportive and accompanies her to the abortion appointment. The movie makes a point of showing the medical and psychological effects of abortion, since Bridget’s post-abortion bleeding is shown for the rest of the movie. And although she has no regrets about having the abortion, Bridget doesn’t really discuss her feelings about it with anyone, even though Jace asks her to, and that supression of emotions eventually starts to take a toll on Bridget without her knowing it, until it all spills out in a pivotal scene in the film.

Meanwhile, Maya is going through her own personal issues, since she’s suffering from post-partum depression, but she isn’t getting therapy for it and is too ashamed to talk about it with Annie. Bridget sees the signs that Maya is depressed, but isn’t sure what to do about it. It doesn’t help that infant son Wally cries whenever Maya is holding him, but stops crying when Bridget holds him, which makes Maya feel like an inadequate mother.

“Saint Frances” also touches on issues of religion, specifically Catholicism. Bridget says she’s a lapsed Catholic, while Maya is a very religious Catholic. Maya is so religious that she’s been praying as a way to heal from her post-partum depression. Annie is not Catholic, but there’s a scene where Annie and Maya get Wally baptized by a priest in a church, and they have a baptism party afterward.

Bridget, who describes herself as “an agnostic feminist,” thinks “it’s immoral to have children” when the world’s resources are being depleted to dangerous levels. When Bridget’s parents come to visit her, she confides in her mother Carol (played by Mary Beth Fisher) that she has this pessimistic belief about human reproduction. Carol responds by telling Bridget that when she had children, she heard the doomsday warnings too, but “I gambled on our survival.” It’s a powerful moment that demonstrates how two people can disagree about an issue as important as parenthood and still respect each other’s opinions.

Another important scene in the movie is when Maya and Bridget confront issues of public breastfeeding and homophobia. When they’re in a park with Franny and baby Wally, a mother who sees Maya breastfeeding goes over and tells Maya to stop because she doesn’t want her children to see it. The offended mother also tells Maya that she’s probably exposing her breasts to attract the men in the park, and gets a shock when Bridget tells the woman that Maya is a lesbian. The scene, if written another way, could have turned into a cringeworthy, hysterical screaming match. Instead, it turns into a teachable moment for Franny on how to respectfully deal with conflicts and not sink to hateful levels.

There’s also a scene in the movie where Bridget faces some hard truths about her life, when it comes to her tendency to avoid committing to serious romantic relationships and career goals. Her feelings for Jace (who wants to be closer to her than she’s willing to let him) have to be put in honest perspective when she meets Franny’s guitar teacher Isaac (played by Jim True-Frost) and is immediately attracted to him. Bridget is so attracted to Isaac that she impulsively buys a guitar and asks him for “private lessons.”

And when Bridget is over at Annie and Maya’s house, she has an awkward and surprise reunion with a former Northwestern University classmate Cheryl DuBuys (played by Rebekah Ward), who is a successful businesswoman, self-help author (one of her books is called “Resting Rich Face”) and the mother of a boy who’s visiting for a playdate with Franny. A smug and condescending Cheryl tells Maya that Bridget (who dropped out of Northwestern after a year) was someone that her classmates thought would be “the next Sylvia Plath.” Cheryl then asks Bridget to run an errand for her, and Bridget gets a small level of revenge on Cheryl for humiliating her. (You’ll have to see the movie to find out what the revenge is.)

At the heart of the film though is the relationship between Bridget and Franny. “Saint Frances” is the film debut of Williams, who gives an entirely believable and impressive performance as Franny. The child has an emotional intelligence that is wise beyond her years without being annoying. And as Bridget, O’Sullivan’s performance has real depth in showing someone who can be immature and complicated but still a good person underneath her “hot mess” surface.

It also helps that O’Sullivan did not ruin the “Saint Frances” screenplay with over-the-top slapstick moments, which are predictable tropes in many comedic movies that have a child as one of the main characters. And under the very adept direction of Alex Thompson (who makes his feature-film debut with “Saint Frances”), the movie achieves the right balance of comedy and drama while maintaining realism and a consistent pace.

As for the “saint” word used in the movie’s title, it’s not because Frances is an ideal child. Perhaps it refers to the “miracle” that Franny achieves by changing Bridget from being someone who didn’t like to be around kids to someone who begins to understand that kids should be respected as individuals and not lumped into one stereotypical category. And sometimes, a child can see truths in ways that adults try to deny.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Saint Frances” in New York City on February 28, 2020. The movie’s U.S. theatrical release will expand to more cities in the subsequent weeks.

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