Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022)

28 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is the sophomore effort from actor-filmmaker-auteur Cooper Raiff, whose debut feature, S#!%house, is one of my favorite films of the 2020s so far.

In my review of “S#!%house,” I referred to Cooper Raiff, who is now in his mid-20s, as “the real deal”–his work feels so sincere and unpretentious; it even makes the works of other talented auteurs like Zach Braff, Lena Dunham, and Josh Radnor feel forced by comparison.

Now, with “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (does he pick these titles himself?), Raiff maintains the same sincere, unpretentious charm for a more mainstream-friendly (and perhaps a little predictable at times) yet still delightfully offbeat and smart new film.

In addition to being a good filmmaker, Cooper Raiff is also a good actor. He has an awkward charm to match his handsomeness with an eccentric, easygoing attitude.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” (and yes, “Cha Cha Slide” by DJ Casper does play once in this movie) stars Raiff as a recent college graduate named Andrew, who has no idea what he wants to do with his life, like many people fresh out of college. His girlfriend left for Barcelona (and most likely is never going to see him again), he works a boring job at a “meat-stick” fast-food joint, and he lives at home with his puberty-stricken kid brother (Evan Assante, very good), bipolar mother (Leslie Mann), and stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett), who is so dismissed by Andrew that he even refers to him as “Stepdad Greg.” (Even David, the kid brother, has to tell him to lay off because their mother loves him.)

We’re not sure what dreams Andrew had as a kid–I’m not sure Andrew remembers them either. We do get a prologue in which we see Andrew as a kid pining over an older woman at a dance party and experiencing his first heartbreak upon expressing his feelings toward her. (An awesome tidbit: said-“older woman” is played by Kelly O’Sullivan, who wrote and starred in “Saint Frances,” another underrated indie released in 2020, same as “S#!%house.”) Now, Andrew is 22, graduated, aimless…and now pines over another older woman he meets at another dance party. (Guess he has a type.)

How did this happen? Andrew chaperones David at a neighborhood Bat Mitzvah party, where Andrew gets David’s shy classmates on the dance floor (which then leads him to head the dances of other parties in the neighborhood)–this includes Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), a shy, autistic girl with large headphones. (How Andrew gets Lola to dance is both funny and sweet.) Andrew also meets Lola’s mother Domino (Dakota Johnson), who takes a liking to him the moment he talks her daughter into dancing. She even asks Andrew to babysit Lola every now and then, which then leads to Andrew and Domino getting to know each other better and grow closer together…

Whether or not this develops into a May-December romance, I’ll leave for you to discover. You may even be able to see where it goes, but that’s not a bad thing–a film isn’t about what it’s about but more about how it goes about it, to paraphrase Roger Ebert. What drives the narrative forward is the relationships Andrew shares with Domino, Lola, David, his parents, and others. (Side-note: I’m very thankful that the addition of the character of Domino’s attorney fiancé Joseph [Raul Costillo] didn’t go the way I was afraid it would go.)

And what also aids “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” as with “S#!%house,” is the way Raiff makes something fresh out of familiar cliches while embracing them at the same time. (I’m telling you, Cooper Raiff is a remarkably great talent.) For that matter, Raiff also isn’t afraid to make his own character look downright pathetic and idiotic at times–as with his character in “S#!%house,” Raiff’s Andrew has his own admirable qualities and empathetic, but he messes up, just as we all do; it helps him grow on this coming-of-age journey.

Dakota Johnson is wonderful as Domino. I’ve liked her in movies like “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Our Friend,” but here, she gives what is probably her best work as a sad, lonely woman who loves and cares for her daughter, loves her fiancé even when he’s away for work too often, feels a connection with this 22-year-old man but doesn’t always know how to react upon it, and also feels as alone as Andrew at times. There are many layers to her character that help make this my favorite performance of Dakota Johnson’s by far.

Everyone in this film does fine work–Raiff, Johnson, Mann, Garrett, the likable younger actors, Costillo, and also Odeya Rush (in a small but still nicely-done role as Andrew’s friend-with-benefits). But It’s Dakota Johnson and Cooper Raiff who deserve credit for giving us a charming feel-good movie that’s as important as it is charming.

Available on Apple TV+.

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