Everything is so effortlessly charming in Cha Cha Real Smooth, a film that showcases all the best qualities of an emerging talent like Cooper Raiff. Touching on a familiar but relatable challenge of being fresh out of college, the film joins other brilliant gems like Into the Wild, Adventureland, and Frances Ha, resting on its likeable lead interacting with a handful of other characters who help them navigate their way out of post-graduate limbo.
Lovable Characters to Root For
That likeable lead is Andrew (Raiff), who at the moment is in a rut. He’s moved back into his mother’s (Leslie Mann) house and has to deal with his insufferable step-father (Brad Garrett). He sleeps on an air mattress in his younger brother David’s (Evan Assante) room. He’s trying to find a legitimate job while working at a mall food court restaurant called Meat Sticks. The script does an immaculate job at establishing Andrew’s world during these first few minutes. It’s never designed to make you feel bad for Andrew. Sure, you do feel bad for him, but what helps tremendously is just how much of a good sport he is at taking it and carrying on each day.
That energy and insistence in being kind and generous carries over to the bar mitzvahs he attends. Actually he goes from attending them to hosting them, because he’s that good at helping other people have a good time as a party planner. It is here where he meets and strikes up a friendship with Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Sensing the two of them are outsiders, especially with Lola being easily bullied by her classmates, Andrew volunteers himself as a “babysitter” and companion.
Slice of Life and Balance of Tone
Throughout his film, Raiff juggles plenty of subplots and situations and essentially creates a slice of life experience with memorable characters. Told over the course of one summer break, the script is full of small details, each one sweet and wholesome. Andrew learns about Lola’s talent at solving 13×13 Rubik’s cubes, her collection of potato mashers, and her precious hamster. Meanwhile, he’s teaching his brother David how to successfully woo a girl he has a crush on—David’s hoping to have his first kiss before the summer ends.
It’s the best kind of comedy-drama with no villain, because there’s no need for the story to have one. More than anything, Cha Cha Real Smooth is a story about connection. As Raiff described it best, it’s about “two different soul mates helping each other get strong for different stages in their lives.” There’s something intimate, precious, and earnest in seeing Andrew’s uncertainty about being in his twenties be matched by Domino’s anxiety and fears going into her thirties.
In front of and behind the camera, Raiff directs and leads Cha Cha Real Smooth with a palpable down-to-earth sensitivity. The result is a slice-of-life film that manages to be both silly and mature at the same time—all while effortlessly charming the audience. With a terrific lead performance, his warmth in Andrew is only further elevated by Johnson, who gives a career-defining performance. The supporting actors also have their own moments to shine. Raiff shares plenty of brief but meaningful moments with Mann and Assante, and they all feel like real, complicated people. Most of all, the decision to let Burghardt, an actress who is autistic in real life, really shine and be seen on screen, is very special.
What a Crowd-pleaser
Even with a familiar premise and a story that we’ve seen before, it’s the emotional honesty, the quirky but witty dialogue, and the tenderness that make this film stand out and leave such a great impression. Cooper Raiff has made a film that hits all the right notes because you can feel the compassion behind each one. Full of warm performances and an enormous heart, Cha Cha Real Smooth is a crowd-pleaser in all the right ways.
Cha Cha Real Smooth screened as part of Sundance 2022 and was awarded the (U.S. Dramatic) Audience Award. Head here for more from this year’s festival.