Funny, charming, and heartbreakingly relatable, Cooper Raiff’s second feature film shows why he’s a young filmmaker to look out for.
By Sean Blanford
Love is a feeling that can be difficult to navigate, hard to find in the first place, and once you think you finally have it all figured out, there are no guarantees. Love takes many forms, whether towards a family member, a friend, or that person you think could be (one of) your soulmates. In Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, love has no bounds regardless of age. It can be messy but rewarding, heartbreaking but enthralling, but most of all relatable because every situation presented to us are all ones that we have been in at one point in our lives.
We first meet Andrew (Raiff) as a young child, rejected by a girl because she’s too old for him, then shot down by his college girlfriend initially to go with her to Barcelona after graduation. Instead, Andrew does what many directionless recent college grads do: get an underwhelming job that pays the bills, move back in with his family, and possibly get a sense of where he wants to go next. By day it’s his full-time gig at Meat Stick, where he spends more time on his phone than serving non-existent customers. However, he unintentionally stumbles into a gig as a party starter for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. At one of these gigs, Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), a woman with a reputation amongst the other Jewish mothers. Andrew sparks a friendship with Domino via interacting with her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), and the sparks begin to fly even though we later find out that Domino is engaged.
There is a lot to love about Cha Cha Real Smooth, beginning with its ensemble cast. Having veteran actors Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett as Andrew’s mother and step-father gives the film an additional dose of humor with heart, and Andrew and his brother have to come around to him initially. In addition, Dakota Johnson flexes her muscles in another well-acted indie film alongside her roles in The Peanut Butter Falcon, Our Friend, and The Lost Daughter. Burghardt shines in her first acting role, and Raiff is hard not to love. You want him to succeed because he cares about everyone around him. Andrew likes the kids to have a fun party, which is why he gets this gig in the first place. He looks out for Lola not only because he’s in love with his mom but because she is bullied for being different. Andrew makes decisions with his heart because it’s what he feels is right, with varying degrees of success.
The film is also very smartly written, navigating the usual tropes of romantic comedies with ease because this isn’t your typical entry in the genre. For example, when he gives his brother advice on how to land his first kiss, it comes off initially as a list of rules that focuses on the girl but realizes at the end that he has to be happy too because love is a two-way street. There is a moment when you think you’re going to get the shoehorned-in quarrel to have that big return leading to a happily ever after moment, but here it feels organic because it’s frustrating to find all the correct answers. Domino and Andrew have a confusing relationship but trust each other because Andrew cares about her and Lola. In the end, you feel good about where everyone lands, even though it may not be what you expect.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is in 2022 what CODA was at last year’s festival. A funny, heartwarming crowdpleaser that cuts through the seriousness of what most film festival entries typically are. Raiff, in his young filmmaking career, has made two great independent films with this and 2020’s Shithouse. Hopefully, this can serve as a launching pad for what comes next.
Grade: 4.5/5 (A)
Cha Cha Real Smooth made its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd. Image courtesy of the Sundance Institute.