The acclaimed Sundance film explores love and awkwardness on the bar mitzvah circuit

JTA — A new Jewish coming-of-age film begins with the 12-year-old hero being rejected by an older girl at a bar mitzvah.

Then the film jumps a decade later, as the title character embarks on a career as a “party-going” bar mitzvah.

It’s an unlikely calling for a character who isn’t Jewish, especially created and played by someone who isn’t either.

But that’s the premise of “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” one of the most beloved films that debuted this week at the (virtual) Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award for Best Drama.

Directed by and starring young filmmaker Cooper Raiff, and acquired by Apple TV+ for a $15 million distribution deal, the film uses the bar mitzvah circuit as the backdrop for an aimless young man’s maturation. . Its title, a lyric from DJ Casper’s ubiquitous dance track “Cha Cha Slide,” will elicit a Pavlovian response from anyone who’s attended a shindig overseen by the likes of this film’s protagonist.

Raiff plays Andrew, a familiar guy in coming-of-age cinema: he’s a recent college graduate without much direction or ambition. One Saturday, while accompanying his younger brother (Evan Assante) to a bar mitzvah, Andrew manages to get the kids dancing, including an autistic girl named Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).

Although not Jewish himself, Andrew is ‘surrounded by Jewish mothers’ and persuaded to start a business, as a ‘bandleader’ at local bar and bat mitzvahs – a potentially lucrative hustle , as anyone who has ever had to plan a kosher preteen dance party to accompany their child’s Torah reading knows all too well. He also grows closer to Lola’s mother, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and the whole process puts him on the path to adult responsibility.

The film’s bar mitzvah parties match most traditional Hollywood portrayals of the occasion, where it seems the entire class at school, along with their parents, are invited to the festivities each week.

We see lit candles and Hamotzi and Kiddush blessings, although the music leans less towards “Hava Nagila” and more towards pop. When Raiff’s character plays Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s scorching hit “WAP,” it leads to the accusation, from one of the mothers, that “you embarrassed Rabbi Steinberg.”

But there is another, more subtle, Jewish connection to the film’s music: its score was composed, in part, by Este Haim, of the rock band Haim, whose sister Alana played in “Licorice Pizza,” another recent Jewish-themed comer. -age movie.

Like his character, Raiff, whose previous film was the 2020 indie hit “Shithouse,” is not Jewish himself. In an interview with Variety, Raiff noted that he went to bar mitzvah “every weekend” as a kid. His film nonetheless captures many aspects of the bar mitzvah party experience, from sneaking around for first kisses, to nervous children being the first 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 an occasional girlfriend. And Leslie Mann, who plays Andrew’s mother, is married to prolific Jewish director Judd Apatow, who has made several films like this about twenty man-children (sometimes played by Seth Rogen) taking belated steps to to grow.

The film depicts a relatively secular culture in which seemingly every family in town with a child of that age, Jewish or not, meets weekly at a bar or a bat mitzvah. It’s a place where Jews feel comfortable welcoming their non-Jewish neighbors into the synagogue, while trusting a non-Jew to get the dance started. Johnson’s character even says, at one point, that she sometimes envies Judaism.

Whether this all represents a heartwarming example of interreligious harmony, or a shameful watering down of the sacred ritual of coming of age – with the non-Jewish protagonist profiting from his cultural appropriation – may very well emerge as contentious debate once the people are starting to see the film.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” will be coming to Apple TV+, though there’s no word on when it’ll be released, or if it will hit theaters as well.

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