JTA — A new Jewish coming-of-age movie begins with the hero, at age 12, getting rejected by an older girl at a bar mitzvah.
Then the movie jumps to a decade later, as the main character embarks on a career as a bar mitzvah “party starter.”
It’s an unlikely vocation for a character who isn’t Jewish, especially one created and played by someone who isn’t, either.
But that’s the premise of “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” one of the more highly regarded films that debuted this week at the (virtual) Sundance Film Festival, winning the audience prize for best drama.
Directed by and starring the young filmmaker Cooper Raiff, and acquired by Apple TV+ for a $15 million distribution deal, the film uses the bar mitzvah circuit as a backdrop for an aimless young man’s maturation. Its title, a lyric from the ubiquitous DJ Casper dance track “Cha Cha Slide,” will prompt a Pavlovian response from anyone who’s attended any shindig overseen by the likes of this film’s protagonist.
Raiff plays Andrew, a familiar type in coming-of-age cinema: He’s a recent college graduate without much direction or ambition. One Saturday, accompanying his younger brother (Evan Assante) to a bar mitzvah, Andrew succeeds in getting the kids, including an autistic girl named Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), to dance.
Despite not being Jewish himself, Andrew is “swarmed by Jewish mothers” and persuaded to start something of business, as a “Jig Conductor” at area bar and bat mitzvahs — a potentially lucrative hustle, as anyone who’s ever had to plan a kosher preteen dance party to accompany their child’s Torah reading knows all too well. He also gets close with Lola’s mother, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and the entire process puts him on the path toward adult responsibility.
The movie’s bar mitzvah parties fall in line with most mainstream Hollywood depictions of the occasion, where it appears that the entire class at school, as well as their parents, are invited to each week’s festivities.
We do see candle lighting and Hamotzi and Kiddush blessings, although the music tends less toward “Hava Nagila” and more toward pop. When Raiff’s character plays Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s raunchy hit “WAP,” it leads to the accusation, from one of the mothers, that “you embarrassed Rabbi Steinberg.”
But there’s another, more subtle Jewish connection to the film’s music: Its score was composed, in part, by Este Haim, of the rock band Haim, and whose sister Alana starred in “Licorice Pizza,” another recent Jewish-themed coming-of-age movie.
Like his character, Raiff, whose previous film was the college-set 2020 indie hit “Shithouse,” isn’t Jewish himself. In an interview with Variety, Raiff noted he went to bar mitzvahs “every weekend” as a kid. His film nevertheless captures many aspects of the bar mitzvah party experience, from sneaking off for first kisses, to kids being nervous about being the first one to get up and dance.
There are plenty of Jewish performers in the cast, including Brad Garrett as Andrew’s stepfather, and Israeli actress Odeya Rush, best known from “Lady Bird” and the Israeli drama series “Baalat HaChalomot,” playing a casual girlfriend. And Leslie Mann, who plays Andrew’s mother, is married to prolific Jewish director Judd Apatow, who has made several movies like this one about 20-something man-children (sometimes played by Seth Rogen) taking belated steps toward growing up.
The film depicts a relatively secular culture in which seemingly every family in town with a kid that age, whether Jewish or not, gathers together each week at a bar or bat mitzvah. It’s a place where Jews feel comfortable welcoming their gentile neighbors into the synagogue, while also trusting a non-Jew to get the dancing started. Johnson’s character even says, at one point, that she sometimes envies Judaism.
Whether all this represents a heartwarming example of interfaith harmony, or a shameful watering down of the sacred coming-of-age ritual — with the non-Jewish protagonist profiting from his cultural appropriation — may very well emerge as a contentious debate once people start seeing the movie.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” will arrive on Apple TV+, although there’s no word on the timing of its release, or whether it will have a run in theaters as well.
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