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2022's Two Best Sundance Movies Hit Streaming This Weekend

Apple TV+ and Hulu are staging a Sundance revival this weekend — here's why you should watch.
  • Photos: Apple TV+, Hulu.
    Photos: Apple TV+, Hulu.

    This year's Sundance Film Festival is set to factor into this weekend's entertainment options in a big way, and — surprise! — it's all happening on streaming.

    Dropping today on Apple TV+ is Cha Cha Real Smooth, a romantic comedy of sorts that won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at January's festival. Also today, Hulu premieres the Emma Thompson film Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, in which the Oscar-winning actress plays a reserved woman who seeks out the services of a male sex worker. Both films were huge hits with both critics and audiences at the festival, and their arrival on streaming is illustrative of the indie film pipeline as it now exists in an age of superhero cinema and everything-else television.

    This isn't new for 2022, although it is becoming more crystalized. Last year's Best Picture winner, CODA, was the big hit at Sundance 2021, where it got acquired by Apple TV+ in a record $25 million deal, and although it played in theaters long enough to qualify for an Oscars run, it existed primarily on streaming.

    Apple spent $10 million less this year for Cha Cha Real Smooth, a relative bargain for a movie that charmed festival audiences.

    Grand Jury Prize winner Nanny was acquired by Amazon Studios, which also acquired last month's thought-provoking campus-hijinks-gone-wrong film Emergency. Audience Award winning documentary Navalny premiered first on CNN+ and then HBO Max. Out-of-competition premiere After Yang, a contemplative futuristic film starring Colin Farrell that won rave reviews, premiered on Showtime. And after earning Emma Thompson the best reviews she's had in a long time, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande drops on Hulu.

    Leo Grande's route to Hulu illuminates just how much the indie landscape has changed over the last few years. The film was acquired at Sundance by Searchlight Pictures, which was Fox Searchlight before Disney acquired 20th Century Fox in 2019. Despite its tether to one of the major studios, Fox Searchlight was one of the premiere indie film distributors that regularly acquired Sundance films and released them theatrically.

    With Searchlight now under the Disney wing, much of their film slate is being sent directly to streaming — see also fellow Sundance hit Fresh, which premiered on Hulu this March. This marks a huge change in the indie landscape. Sure, there was a period of time during the pandemic when even some larger films moved to streaming, but while most studio films have returned to theaters, the Sundance-sized movies have not.

    The good news is that you'll be able to see two hit Sundance hits this weekend without leaving the comfort of your couch.

    Cha Cha Real Smooth comes from writer/director Cooper Raiff, whose 2020 film Shithouse also earned festival raves for being a funny and sweet one-crazy-night comedy. Raiff himself stars in both films, and the effect of them come one right after the other is that he's perfecting a kid of twentysomething anxiety about striking out on one's own.

    In Cha Cha, Raiff plays a post-collegiate guy working as a party host for Bar Mitzvahs who meets and is beguiled by a married mom, played by the Dakota Johnson. There's a pleasant shagginess to the way Raiff constructs his stories, and he's incredibly charming in the type of role that could so easily trend towards the obnoxious.

    Meanwhile, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande could very easily have rested on the laurels of its central performance. Emma Thompson plays Nancy, an older woman, a widowed retired teacher who hires a deeply hot young sex worker (the titular Leo Grande, played by Daryl McCormack) in an attempt to step out of her comfort zone. It doesn't come easily to her, though, and Thompson is fantastic as she navigates Nancy's trepidation as well as the parts of her that long to be more adventurous.

    Writer Katy Brand and director Sophie Hyde give Thompson a great showcase with a movie that has the guts to be both sexually frank and disarmingly honest, and when Thompson delivers her much-talked-about nude scenes, the film has earned them. The film is also the beneficiary of a rather excellent breakthrough performance by McCormack, who doesn't shrink from the task of going toe-to-toe with Thompson as they challenge, charm, and seduce one another.

    Both Cha Cha Real Smooth and Good Luck to You, Leo Grande are both worth your time this weekend, but they're also worth more than getting lost in the great chasm of streaming television, which is the danger for indie films now that streaming seems to be their destination of choice.

    While indie houses like A24 and Neon persist admirably in getting indies into theaters (one need look no further than the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once this spring for proof that indies can still bring in crowds), streamers are going to have to get better at elevating and promoting these films to their at-home audiences. As this weekend's offerings prove, they deserve it.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Sundance Film Festival, Apple TV+, Hulu, Cha Cha Real Smooth, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Daryl McCormack, Emma Thompson