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: ‘India Sweets and Spices,’ starring Sophia Ali, Manisha Koirala, Adil Hussain, Deepti Gupta, Rish Shah and Ved Sapru

January 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rish Shah, Sophia Ali and Ved Sapru in “India Sweets and Spices” (Photo courtesy of SK Global Entertainment/Bleecker Street)

“India Sweets and Spices”

Directed by Geeta Malik

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Ruby Hill, New Jersey, and briefly in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama film “India Sweets and Spices” features a cast of characters of Indian heritage representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: While on a summer break after her first year in college, a young upper-middle-class woman has some conflicts with her parents, including her parents not approving of her working-class boyfriend, and how she’s affected when she finds out her parents’ biggest secrets. 

Culture Audience: “India Sweets and Spices” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching appealing but not particularly outstanding movies about Indian American culture.

Manisha Koirala in “India Sweets and Spices” (Photo courtesy of SK Global Entertainment/Bleecker Street)

As a blend of a romantic comedy and a family drama, “India Sweets and Spices” can be somewhat erratic in its tone and pacing. The second half of the movie is much better than the first half. It’s ultimately a charming story about a young woman finding her identity and coming to terms with how family baggage and family traditions affect her life. Written and directed by Geeta Malik, “India Sweets and Spices” benefits from having an engaging cast that can hold viewers’ interest, even when certain parts of the movie start to drag into a predictable formula.

Fortunately, there are some surprises in “India Sweets and Spices,” but they don’t come until the last half of the movie. The first half of the film gives the impression that’s it’s going to be a typical romantic comedy about a young woman who defies her parents’ wishes, by dating someone from a family that’s looked down on by her parents. In the second half of the movie, her parents’ secrets lead to the more dramatic parts of the story, which at times resembles a soap opera. “India Sweets and Spices” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

In the beginning of “India Sweets and Spices,” Alia Kapur (played by Sophia Ali) has just completed her freshman year at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and is about to go on a summer break. Her last party on campus before her vacation is a “social justice social,” which is the type of party she’s been going to on a regular basis. Alia gets drunk at the party and impulsively cuts her long hair into a mid-length bob.

Alia has already declared biology has her major. It seems that she’s planning to be a scientist or medical doctor, which would be a profession that her parents would approve of, since her father Ranjit Kapur (played by Adil Hussain) is a heart surgeon. Alia’s mother Sheila Kapur (played by Manisha Koirala) is a traditional homemaker. Alia has two siblings: sister Jiya Kapur (played by Rhea Patil) is about 13 or 14 years old, while brother Sahil Kapur (Ansh Nayak) is about 10 or 11 years old. Alia and her siblings were born in the United States, while their parents were born in India and immigrated to the U.S. not long after they got married.

The Kapur family lives in an upper-middle-class home in the fictional city of Ruby Hill, New Jersey. (“India Sweets and Spices” was actually filmed in Atlanta.) Alia is spending her vacation at her parents’ home. She’s looking forward to a summer of being free from school and hanging out with her childhood best friend Neha Bhatia (played by Anita Kalathara), who is a loyal and cheerful pal. However, since Alia and Neha follow their family traditions, they know they have to spend a lot of time at their parents’ social gatherings. These parties often take place at the Kapur family home.

Only other upper-middle-class or wealthy Indians in the area are invited to these parties. It soon becomes clear in the movie that these soirees are excuses for many of the party attendees to show off, brag about their lives, and gossip. Alia’s parents are extremely status-conscious and love to give the impression that they’re highly intellectual and cultured. As an example of their pretentiousness, there’s a scene later in the movie where Alia and her love interest are in the library of the Kapur family home, and she shows him that some of the “intellectual” books on the bookshelves are really just empty façades.

Alia’s love interest is Varun Dutta (played by Rish Shah), who works in his parents’ local convenience store that carries a lot of Southeast Asian food. The name of the store is India Sweets and Spices. Alia happens to go in the store one day to buy some biscuits for her family’s upcoming house party. The movie has a rom-com contrivance of Alia seeing Varun and being so instantly attracted him, she gets flustered and buys more biscuits than she needs.

Alia and Varun have their “meet cute” moment when they lock eyes and they strike up a flirty conversation. (In a self-deprecating nod to predictable “meet cute” moments in romantic comedies, the movie even has a wind-flowing-through-hair effect and angel sounds when Alia first sees Varun.) Alia tells Varun that she’s on a summer break from UCLA. And what a coincidence: Varun mentions that he’s completed community college and will be transferring to UCLA later that year when school starts again in the fall.

During this conversation, Alia also meets Varun’s parents—father Kamlesh Dutta (played by Kamran Shaikh) and mother Bhairavi “Peru” Dutta (played by Deepti Gupta)—and Varun’s sister Puja Dutta (played by Jia Patel), who’s about 12 or 13, and who helps out in the family store. Alia finds out that the Dutta family recently moved to the area. The entire family is friendly, so Alia impulsively invites Varun and his parents to her family’s house party. They happily accept the invitation.

Not everyone is happy about this invitation. Alia’s mother Sheila, who is a very uptight snob, is annoyed that this working-class family was invited to the party without Sheila being consulted first. And sure enough, when the Dutta family arrives, Sheila and her husband Ranjit treat the Duttas somewhat dismissively. And so do many other people at party, when they find out that the Duttas make their living by owning a convenience store.

The Duttas graciously brought food to the party as a gift, but Sheila turns her nose up that too, because the food is in a plastic Tupperware container instead of a more upscale container. Sheila is also somewhat annoyed by the gift because she sees herself as a socialite who hosts parties where guests don’t need to bring their own food and drinks. As Alia tells Varun later, Sheila is the type of person who looks down on anyone who isn’t wearing designer clothes. When Alia and Varun go upstairs to an empty room to make out with each other, they see something that turns Alia’s world upside down. It’s her father’s big secret.

Alia’s parents make it clear to Alia that they think it’s more appropriate that she date someone who can afford to pay for the privileged lifestyle in which Alia has been raised. The parents think an ideal match would be Rahul Singh (played by Ved Sapru), the son of their longtime friends Gurvinder Singh (played by Raj Kala) and Uma Singh (played by Priya Deva), who apparently have more money than the Kapur family. Alia and Rahul have known each other since childhood, but there aren’t any real romantic sparks between them. Rahul, who’s a student at Duke University, can be conceited and arrogant, but he’s not a complete jerk.

Even though Alia’s parents think that the Dutta family isn’t good enough to be in their social circle, Alia has a mind of her own and starts dating Varun anyway. As Varun and Alia get to know each other, and their feelings for each other grow stronger, they find out that their parents had very different courtships. Alia’s parents had an arranged marriage, while Varun’s parents married for love and of their own free will.

The differences between these two sets of parents cause tensions between the two families, mainly because Alia’s parents treat Varun and his family as if they’re second-class citizens. It’s not quite a “Romeo and Juliet” story, because there are other complications besides family disapproval of a romance. It turns out that when Varun’s mother Bhairavi saw Alia’s mother Sheila at the party, Bhairavi immediately recognized Sheila as a former friend she knew when they were students at Delhi University. Bhairavi hugged Sheila, who responded in a standoffish way and pretended not to know Bhairavi.

Eventually, Sheila admits that she and Bhairavi knew each other, but Sheila says she’s a different person now. How different? When she was in college, Sheila was a progressive feminist who formed a women’s rights activist group with some other female students. Bhairavi was one of those students. (This isn’t spoiler information because it’s already revealed in the movie’s trailer.)

Alia, who considers herself to be a liberal feminist, is shocked to find out that her mother used to be a liberal feminist too when Sheila was Alia’s age. Sheila has completely opposite beliefs now. What happened to make Sheila change so drastically? That’s the secret that Sheila doesn’t want a lot of people to know.

“India Sweets and Spices” is by no means a boring movie, but it seems like writer/director Malik tried to cram in too many ideas that sometimes don’t flow too well together. The first half of the movie is almost like a breezy, lightweight comedy about Alia and Kapur’s budding romance, but the second half takes a very different and much more serious tone as Sheila has to deal with the secrets that she finds out about both of her parents. Both of these secrets will have negative effects on their parents’ reputations if these secrets are revealed to the people in their stuck-up and judgmental social circle.

The movie takes an interesting look at how upwardly mobile immigrant families in the United States can act to assimilate into American culture and achieve the American Dream. Alia’s family represents the toxicity of what can happen when any family puts too much emphasis on appearances and wealth and not on being genuine and compassionate human beings. Alia thinks she’s not like her image-conscious and materialistic parents, but there’s some friction in her relationship with Varun when he points out to Alia the ways in which she behaves like an elitist snob.

All of the cast members are convincing in their roles, but Ali as Alia and Koirala as Sheila are the ones who get to show the most acting range. That’s because Alia and Sheila are the ones who have the most depth to their personalities in this movie. Even though “India Sweets and Spices” does have a boyfriend-girlfriend romance as a big part of the story, the mother-daughter relationship is ultimately the one that has the most impact and will be remembered by viewers the most.

Bleecker Street released “India Sweets and Spices” in select U.S. cinemas on November 19, 2021, and on digital and VOD on December 7, 2021.

Review: ‘Mallory’ (2021), starring Dianne Grossman and Seth Grossman

April 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

A family photo of Dianne Grossman, Seth Grossman and Mallory Grossman in “Mallory” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Mallory” (2021)

Directed by Ash Patiño

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey, the documentary film “Mallory” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) discussing the life and legacy of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who committed suicide in 2017, after being bullied by some students at her school.

Culture Clash: Mallory’s parents (Dianne and Seth Grossman) have sued the school district for not doing more to stop the bullying, while the bullying students were not punished.

Culture Audience: “Mallory″ will appeal primarily to people want to learn more about what to do to help with protection from and prevention of childhood bullying and suicide.

Dianne Grossman In “Mallory” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The documentary film “Mallory” should be essential viewing for anyone who cares about helping prevent bullying that can lead to suicides. It’s not an easy film to watch for people who are triggered by these issues. And the documentary doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. But “Mallory” is a raw and very personal look at how one family experienced tragedy from these issues and is doing their best to that heal through educating people on what to do before it’s too late.

Directed by Ash Patiño, “Mallory” tells the story of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, who committed suicide on June 14, 2017, by hanging herself in her bedroom closet at her home in Rockaway Township, New Jersey. Her suicide came after several months of Mallory experiencing vicious bullying at school. She wasn’t getting physically assaulted. She was being verbally harassed and cyberbullied by some female students at her school. And on at least one occasion, one of the bullies told Mallory that she should kill herself.

On the surface, Mallory seemed to have an idyllic childhood. Her parents Dianne Grossman and Seth Grossman were happily married. They lived with Mallory and their older daughter Carlee in a comfortable, upper-middle-class home in a safe neighborhood. Carlee is not interviewed in the documentary, but she is seen in footage at events for Mallory’s Army, the non-profit anti-bullying organization that Dianne and Seth Grossman founded in 2018, in Mallory’s honor. Mallory excelled in gymnastics. And for a time, Mallory was also a cheerleader.

Several people who knew Mallory—including family members, schoolmates, teachers and other kids’ parents—describe her in the documentary as a happy-go-lucky, compassionate child who always knew how to make other people smile. Mallory’s mother Dianne also says, “Mallory connected with nature.” The documentary includes several clips of Mallory in home videos where she appears to be a well-adjusted, happy kid.

Sounds perfect, right? Well, perfect isn’t reality. As Mallory’s parents say in the documentary, Mallory seemed to be a happy child to many people. But the happiness was often a façade that hid her inner turmoil, especially in the last several months of her life.

Mallory had a best friend named Bianca Marchese, who is interviewed in the documentary. Bianca and her mother Katee Petro speak highly of Mallory and share a lot of fond memories of her. Some of the home video clips include Bianca and Mallory goofing off together. And yet, Mallory would often complain to her mother that she had “no friends” at Copeland Middle School, where she had transferred in the new school year.

Why was Mallory being targeted by these bullies? (Mallory’s alleged bullies and their parents are not interviewed for the documentary.) Dianne says she believes that the bullies were jealous of Mallory because they perceived her to be a privileged rich girl even though the Grossman family isn’t wealthy. Mallory was also bullied over her gymnastics accomplishments, and the harassment got so bad that Mallory quit her gymnastics team.

Bullying doesn’t just come in the form of insulting people or assaulting them. It can also come in the form of making people feel like outcasts by refusing to let them sit next to you and excluding them from social gatherings where they should be included. It happened to Mallory a lot at school, according to what she told her parents. Students and teachers at the school witnessed Mallory being mistreated in this way, according to several people in the documentary. And still, nothing was done to help Mallory by anyone at her school.

It’s one thing to have social cliques. It’s another thing to cruelly go out of your way to let everyone know why someone is being excluded from a group, to gang up on someone to maintain the exclusion, and to pressure other people to exclude that person too. Some people handle bullying better than others. For those who are mentally or emotionally fragile, it can be too much and can lead to self-harm.

Dianne comments in the documentary about the deep emotional pain that Mallory hid from her family. On the day of the suicide, “All she said was, ‘Hey, I had a bad day. When are you coming home?’ The sadness must’ve been overwhelming.” Seth adds of Mallory’s tragically short life: “We’re definitely lucky we got 12 years … There was a special uniqueness about her, from when she was a year old.”

In some parts of the documentary, Seth and Dianne are interviewed in Mallory’s room. And in one heartbreaking scene, they describe the day that Mallory died. Seth found her non-responsive in the closet. Dianne was in New York City with Carlee that day to see the Broadway show “Waitress,” but they rushed home when they heard that Mallory had hurt herself. It wasn’t until Dianne and Carlee saw the emergency medics and police at their house that they knew how bad it was.

In the months before Mallory’s death, Dianne and Seth Grossman repeatedly brought their concerns about the bullying to school officials and to the parents of the bullies. And the Grossmans say that nothing was done by the school or the parents. Dianne and Seth also say that although they noticed Mallory was sometimes sad about the way she was treated in school, they had no idea that she could be suicidal.

And that’s why the Grossmans filed a lawsuit against the Rockaway Township Board of Education, Rockaway Township and employees of Copeland Middle School, who are all accused of failing to protect Mallory from the excessive bullying. The Grossmans have received a lot of national media attention for this lawsuit, which has not yet been resolved, as of this writing. Any of the defendants who publicly responded have denied the allegations, but they are not interviewed in this documentary.

After the lawsuit was filed, Greg McGann resigned as Rockaway Township school district superintendent. The documentary includes commentary from a teacher (and obvious friend of the Grossman family) named Karin Kasper, who was not an employee of Copeland Middle School. However, she has this opinion of what happened in how the school handled the bullying of Mallory: “The school made it look like it was Mallory’s fault. There’s a huge amount of victim blaming going on in how they treated her.”

Since Mallory’s death, Dianne has made speaking appearances at many schools to educate people about bullying and suicide prevention. The documentary includes some emotionally powerful clips of her speaking at schools and sharing her personal story about what happened to Mallory. Dianne sums up one of the main messages that she wants to get across in her speaking engagements and with her Mallory’s Army work: “If this can happen to Mallory Grossman, it can happen to any one of our kids.” After one of these speaking appearances, Dianne comments in a documentary interview that the students who tend to cry the most at her speaking appearances are the bullies and the students who are being bullied.

The documentary also includes footage of several Mallory’s Army charity events, including a 5K running marathon, a hockey game and a motorcycle ride. There’s also footage of student workshops where students act out scenarios of how they can prevent bullying and how to protect other students who are being bullied. It’s repeated several times in the documentary that bullying realistically won’t go away, but schools, parents and students need to be held more accountable in how bullying is handled.

Several people are interviewed in this film, but the documentary isn’t too overstuffed with talking heads. The interviewees include Dianne Grossman’s sister Angela Piazza; Diane Grossman’s mother Teresa Toella, and family friends Heather Gallagher and Meredith Lutz, whose son David Lutz was a friend of Mallory’s who says that he if had been able to see the bullying himself at the school, he would have tried to protect her.

Also interviewed are North Star gymnastic coaches Melissa Jones and Christian Campitiello, who have high praise for Mallory; Grossman family attorneys Diane Sammons and Bruce Nagel, who are partners at Nagel Rice Law Firm; licensed professional counselor Emily Ryzuk; Mallory’s Army member Jenn Stillwell; Inez Barbiero of Core Growth Strategies, which helps small businesses; and Teresa Reuter and Todd Schobel, co-directors of anti-bullying for STOPit Solutions, a Holmdel, New Jersey-based tech group aimed at stopping cyberbullying. There are some people (children and adults) interviewed who have experienced childhood bullying, including Daniel Mendoza, Keisha Johnson and Briana Beuselinck.

The Grossmans don’t just want change in the Rockaway school system through their lawsuit. They also want legislative change that can better protect school children from being bullied, even if they’re not in the Rockaway school system. Because the public educational system in the U.S. is controlled by individual states, the Grossmans are starting with their home state of New Jersey.

The documentary shows Dianne meeting with New Jersey state senator Joe Pennacchio of District 26 to talk about passing a New Jersey law to hold the state’s schools and parents of bullies more accountable for bullying that takes place in these schools. In the meeting, Pennacchio expresses his support for a possible bill proposal that parents of bullies have to go to court if their children who are accused of bullying. As of this writing, nothing has been changed in New Jersey laws about bullying in New Jersey schools since Mallory’s death.

The “Mallory” documentary has some minor post-production flaws that don’t take away from the movie’s overall message. Some of the editing in “Mallory” could have been fine-tuned better. And the sound mixing is very uneven at times. However, most people who watch this documentary would agree that the movie is very effective in its intention and that watching this film is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Gravitas Ventures released “Mallory” on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Low Tide’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jaeden Martell and Keean Johnson in “Low Tide” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

“Low Tide”

Directed by Kevin McMullin

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The Jersey Shore in the dramatic thriller “Low Tide” isn’t at all like what’s portrayed in dumbed-down reality TV shows filled with argumentative, fame-hungry people who don’t want real jobs. “Low Tide” (the first feature film from writer/director Kevin McMullin, a New Jersey native) is told from the perspective of 1980s working-class teenagers, who have simmering resentment of the well-to-do people who vacation on the Jersey Shore. The locals have a name for these wealthy interlopers: “benny,” because they usually come from the nearby cities of Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York.

The local residents need the wealthy vacationers (who often have second homes on the Jersey Shore) to keep the local economy going. The money that flows in during peak season is needed during slower seasons. It’s a cycle that often keeps the working-class locals stuck in a co-dependent rut with the rich people who spend money on their goods and services.

In this environment of tension over class and wealth, three local teen rebels—Alan (played by Keean Johnson), Red (played by Alex Neustaedter) and Smitty (played Daniel Zolghadri)—commit burglaries together in unoccupied houses owned by the type of privileged people who use the Jersey Shore as a place for another home or other real-estate investments. Alan is the heartthrob of the group, Red is the bullying leader, and Smitty is the scrawny runt who’s constantly trying to prove his merits to Alan and Red.

The movie begins with the trio almost getting caught during a botched burglary. While escaping, Smitty jumps off of a roof and breaks his foot, but he’s carried to safety by his two friends. In the panicked confusion, Smitty accidentally leaves one of his shoes behind at the scene of the crime. It’s a mistake that will come back to haunt them later in the story. Smitty’s hobbling around town on crutches doesn’t go unnoticed by Sergeant Kent (played by Shea Whigham), the local cop who’s investigating the burglaries.

It’s summer, and these high schoolers have a lot of time on their hands. In between making mischief, they go to the beach, boardwalk and other local hangouts, where Alan meets and becomes attracted to a pretty teen named Mary (played by Kristine Froseth), who (somewhat predictably) happens to be in the benny crowd . Alan strikes up a budding romance with Mary, while they both try to ignore the differences in their socioeconomic status. He isn’t exactly the smartest guy in the room, so he doesn’t notice that Red is also interested in Mary—or he’s at least jealous that Alan might be accepted into a benny social circle, while the rich kids in town treat Red like a dirtbag.

Meanwhile, the police use Smitty’s lost shoe as evidence to bust him for the botched burglary. Even though Smitty has been arrested and let out on bail, he won’t snitch on his friends. Smitty’s broken foot and arrest have put the three friends’ crime spree on hold. But when they find out that a wealthy elderly recluse has died and has left behind an unoccupied house, it’s a temptation they find hard to resist.

With Smitty out of commission, Alan enlists his younger, well-behaved brother Peter (played by Jaeden Martell), who reluctantly agrees to replace Smitty as their lookout during the burglary. After breaking into the house, Peter and Alan find a bag of rare gold coins. This time, the police catch them in the act of the burglary—Alan is arrested, but Peter and Red narrowly escape from the scene of the crime in separate ways. Unbeknownst to Red, Peter has kept the bag of coins and has hidden the loot in a secluded, wooded area near the beach.

After Alan is released on bail, Peter shares his secret about the coins with Alan. The two brothers decide to lie and tell Red and Smitty that they didn’t take any valuables found at the house because they had been interrupted by the police. Alan and Peter then take a few of the coins to get appraised at a local pawn shop, and they discover (based on the estimates) that the coins are worth a total of about $100,000.

Alan is eager to sell the coins, but Peter cautions that they can’t do too much too soon with the coins, or else it will raise suspicions. They bitterly argue over how to cash in on their stolen haul and how much money should be spent. The conflict leads Peter to doubt if he can trust Alan.

Meanwhile, the police are building a case against this group of teenage thieves (in this relatively small beach city, it’s easy to know who hangs out with each other), and it isn’t long before the cops and other members of the community find out that the dead man had some valuable coins that have gone missing from his house. The rest of the movie is filled with tension over secrets, lies and betrayal, as Red and Smitty begin to wonder if Peter really has the stolen coins, and if anyone in the group will snitch about the burglaries. Red, who has a history of being a violent thug, is also seething with anger when he notices that Alan and Mary have gotten closer.

“Low Tide” isn’t a groundbreaking film—the movie’s screenplay and production use a lot of familiar tropes—but the story is elevated by the believable performances of the cast. Martell (who played Losers Club member Bill Denbrough in the 2017 horror blockbuster film “It”) is a particular standout, since he brings an intelligent sensitivity to the role. Peter is younger than the teenage boys who’ve lured him into their criminal mess, but he’s wiser and has more inner strength than they do. In that sense, “Low Tide” is also an authentic portrait of coming-of-age masculinity in a pre-Internet/pre-smartphone era when teenagers didn’t need social media to validate themselves. “Low Tide” is a crime thriller, but the movie is also a compelling look at how these boys make decisions that will have a profound effect on the type the men that they will become.

UPDATE: A24 Films will release “Low Tide” in select U.S. theaters on October 4, 2019.

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