Young Men, Older Women Bond In New Streaming Releases

Festival Hits 'Leo Grande,' 'Cha Cha' Portray Brief, Potent Connections


Ruben Rosario, Film Critic

A widely held, narrow-minded notion argues that the success of a relationship can be gauged by its length, but what about those people who come into our lives for a limited period of time and proceed to shake up our world?

Two new movies now available to stream, following acclaimed screenings at film festivals earlier this year, chronicle two such short-lived connections. One is transactional in nature, and the other is a messier entanglement between two people seeking different goals. They each involve a man in his twenties and an older woman, but share few similarities beyond that. Except for one thing: no one here can really say their life is exactly the same after their paths cross. Let's dig in.

"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande"

Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in a scene from


Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in a scene from "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande." (Photo by Searchlght Pictures.)

Her anxiety is stress-inducing. When we first see Nancy Stokes, she's making sure the hotel room she's reserved looks inviting enough for her guest. That would be the title character in this compact, shrewdly observed dramedy from England: a gigolo.

As played by Emma Thompson, Nancy is a pragmatic client, a retired schoolteacher who knows exactly what she wants: good sex, as opposed to the stifling, unsatisfying sex the 55-year-old experienced with her late husband. In Leo ("Peaky Blinders'" Daryl McCormack), she finds the ideal match for her carnal quest: a smoldering biracial Irishman with a gift for coaxing people out of their shells.

It doesn't take long for Nancy's confident front to crumble, revealing layers of crippling self-doubt and deep-seated biases. What ensues, over the course of four encounters, is an education of sorts, for both parties that, with one notable exception, is all set within the confines of the same elegant but unremarkable hotel room.

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in a scene from


Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in a scene from "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande." (Photo by Searchlght Pictures.)

"Good Luck to You" is the brainchild of screenwriter Katy Brand, a successful TV star and comedian, and the challenge she and director Sophie Hyde face is to avoid making this two-hander come across as a filmed play. Initially, as Nancy resists Leo's calculated attempts to get her to drop her defenses, it looks as if the filmmakers are not going to win this battle. There is a lot of talk in the film's first half. Too much, actually. The film could have benefited by weaving in more body contact in between getting-to-know-you chatter and the occasional extended anecdote.

But as Nancy begins to loosen up, so does the film's visual style. Cinematographer and editor Bryan Mason alternates between conventional two-shot sequences and closer, more intimate lensing that lets the characters' body language do most of the talking. For viewers disheartened that the movie keeps looking away when things become physical, keep going. This is not the kind of film that shies away from anything, even though it takes its sweet time getting there. The movie does tiptoe around Leo's racial background, but this is largely because it treats the subject as a nonissue.

Leslie Mann, Colton Osorio, Cooper Raiff and Brad Garrett in a scene from


Leslie Mann, Colton Osorio, Cooper Raiff and Brad Garrett in a scene from "Cha Cha Real Smooth." (Photo by Apple TV Plus.)

A striptease in slow motion unfolds in "Leo Grande," only it involves the characters' minds more than their bodies. Leo peels away his client's inhibitions along with inquiring about her life choices, and Nancy attempts to do something similar, with arresting and unexpectedly volatile results. Thompson and McCormack give it their all, aided by a screenplay that's genuinely interested in finding out what makes their characters tick. If there's something that kills the mood at times, it's an occasionally intrusive music score by Stephen Rennicks ("Room") that doesn't always fit with what's happening on screen. A quiet soundtrack in this case speaks louder, and fortunately there are entire stretches with no score.

The filmmakers also make no bones about their support for the legalization of sex work. They make a persuasive case for physical therapy of the coital kind, a cathartic way of making closed-off people unstuck. There's too much foreplay in this portrayal of repression as the enemy of fulfillment, but "Leo Grande" also finds wit, charm, and a seamless mix of laughs and pathos along the way. It's informed by kindness and respect.

"Cha Cha Real Smooth"

Cooper Raiff and Evan Assante in a scene from


Cooper Raiff and Evan Assante in a scene from "Cha Cha Real Smooth." (Photo by Apple TV Plus.)

He's got the moves, is able to make the most stubborn sourpuss smile and is at the age where the world ought to be his oyster. So why does Andrew's life feel like such a dead end? The genial slacker at the center of writer-director-star Cooper Raiff's aggressively sunny crowd-pleaser has just graduated from college, and while his girlfriend (Amara Pedroso Saquel) heads off to Barcelona on a Fulbright scholarship, he's moved in with his mom (Leslie Mann) and stepdad (Brad Garrett) in New Jersey. To make matters worse, he's also sleeping in the same bedroom as his baby brother David (Evan Assante).

Aimlessness appears to be the one constant in Andrew's life. That, and a propensity to fall for older women. (A cute prologue lays this fixation out with storytelling economy.) So when his mother suggests that he pursue a side gig as a party motivator at bar and bat mitzvahs, it doesn't take long for Andrew to meet a guest who catches his eye. Domino (Dakota Johnson) comes with all kinds of baggage. Women whisper behind her back about conduct unbecoming. Her fiancé (Raúl Castillo), a high-powered attorney, is often in Chicago for work. And her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) is on the autism spectrum, a brain but also a wallflower.

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in a scene from


Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in a scene from "Cha Cha Real Smooth." (Photo by Apple TV Plus)

Andrew is fascinated by the entire package, and after accepting an invite from the mutually smitten Domino to babysit Lola, our frequently jovial protagonist navigates the complicated waters of a friendship teetering on the precipice of an affair, with an imposing fiancé making it clear that he's no dummy.

"Cha Cha Real Smooth" ought to be engaging, and Raiff works overtime to win viewers over. But following an appealing start, the pixie dust wears off at roughly the halfway point, revealing a filmmaker who has bitten off more than he can chew. This isn't an obstacle Raiff encountered in his first feature, called something that can't be printed here (the multiple friendly version of the title: "S#!%house"), which also dealt with a college-age man beset by arrested development and romantic woes.

Raiff, a reasonably charismatic screen presence, hits a wall on his sophomore effort, because he doesn't give Domino as much of an inner life as his own character. She's essentially reduced to a supporting player, one in a series of plot strands the director attempts to juggle, with uneven results.

A scene from


A scene from "Cha Cha Real Smooth." (Photo by Apple TV Plus.)

Much more successful are the interactions between Andrew and the younger people in his life. David's apprehension about finding the right moment to give his girlfriend a kiss has a modest but not insignificant payoff. And Raiff's scenes with Burghardt provide a disarming window into how an autistic person views the world. But Andrew's complicated back-and-forth with Domino feels kind of half-baked, a glaring shortcoming from which the film never quite recovers.

Raiff seems to compensate by leaning into the more serious elements of his narrative toward the end. He writes these extended heart-to-heart conversations that aim to move viewers but mostly just stand out by how drawn out they are. What also becomes apparent is that Raiff isn't being tough enough on Andrew. People on both sides of the screen ought to see right through his grating life guru routine, but he thinks it's just darling. This life of the party needs a sterner reality check than the one he's subjected to in this near-miss of a character study.

"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" is now streaming exclusively on Hulu. "Cha Cha Real Smooth" is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV Plus. It is also showing in limited release at the Tower Theater in Little Havana and the Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton.

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