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We already know which movies are going to win the summer box-office battle. Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World Dominion, Thor: Love and Thunder and the latest Minions adventure are pre-engineered to succeed, each film destined to generate a wealth of “Movie theatres are back, baby!” headlines. But for audiences looking for big- and small-screen fare that’s smaller in scale – and maybe even completely original, or original-ish – here are five of the season’s best under-the-radar bets.

Cha Cha Real Smooth

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson.APPLE TV+

With his 2020 micro-budget college-set hit S#!%house, writer-director-star Cooper Raiff established himself as an instant indie-film It Boy. Now the filmmaker has been given a larger budget, a genuine movie-star (Dakota Johnson) and an irresistible rom-com premise in Cha Cha Real Smooth. Snagging a sweetheart acquisition deal from Apple TV+ after its Sundance premiere this past January, the film follows an aimless young graduate (Raiff) who slips back into his hometown as a bar mitzvah DJ. Along the way, he reconnects with his younger brother, heals wounds with his gruff stepfather (Brad Garrett) and attempts to romance the way-out-of-his-league mom (Johnson) whose daughter is a frequent guest on the local l’chaim circuit. (Apple TV+, June 17)

Slash/Back

Tasiana Shirley, left, as Maika and Alexis Wolfe as Jesse.Courtesy of Mixtape SB Productions Inc. / Mongrel Media

For those who’ve seen Michelle Latimer’s 2020 documentary Inconvenient Indian, one highlight involved the doc’s behind-the-scenes footage of the in-production Canadian sci-fi thriller Slash/Back. Directed by Nyla Innuksuk, the Nunavut-set film follows a group of teenage girls who fight off a violent alien invasion. Think of Tracey Deer’s coming-of-age teen girl drama Beans meets John Carpenter’s The Thing, if such a thing is possible. The film’s SXSW Film Festival premiere earlier this spring generated a fair amount of buzz, and the production already looks like a promising continuation of this country’s burgeoning Indigenous sci-fi movement, which has so far delivered Blood Quantum and Night Raiders. (In theatres and on-demand, June 24)

Mr. Malcolm’s List

Freida Pinto, left, as Selina Dalton and Sope Dirisu as Mr. Jeremiah Malcolm.Courtesy of levelFILM

If the new season of Bridgerton hasn’t quenched your thirst for top-tier period romantic drama, then perhaps Mr. Malcolm’s List will drown you, in a classy kind of way. Adapted from Suzanne Allain’s bestselling regency romance, director Emma Holly Jones’s film is aiming straight for Jane Austen territory, casting Freida Pinto and Sope Dirisu as quippy would-be lovers in 1800s England. (In theatres, July 1)

Where the Crawdads Sing

Daisy Edgar-Jones, left, as Kya and David Strathairn as Tom.Michele K. Short/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Reese Witherspoon isn’t starring in, writing, or directing Where the Crawdads Sing, but she is producing it – and given the actress/empire leader’s taste-making talents, expect big things from this adaptation of Delia Owens’s 2018 novel. Focusing on a young North Carolina woman (Daisy Edgar-Jones) on trial for the murder of a former suitor circa 1950, the film appears to be a deeply atmospheric Southern Gothic tale of sex, crime and accents (the one that David Strathairn wields in the trailer that screened at last month’s CinemaCon is wild, people). This could be the steamy, seedy sleeper hit of the season. (In theatres, July 15)

Prey

Amber Midthunder as Naru.Courtesy of Disney+

If the first four Predator films didn’t satisfy your taste for dreadlocked aliens and skinned corpses – six, if we count the two Alien vs. Predator movies – then here’s Prey, allegedly the definitive prequel to the whole franchise shebang. Set in the 1719-era Comanche Nation (but shot in Calgary), director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) follows the first Predator to stalk Earth’s hunting grounds. Unfortunately for him/it, his prey is female warrior Naru (Amber Midthunder), who will stop at nothing to protect her tribe. Cue the bloodshed, and perhaps a messy cultural sensitivity debate. (Streaming on Hulu in the U.S. starting Aug. 5; Canadian release plans not yet confirmed, though I’d bet on Disney+ with Star streaming it here.)

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