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Review: Cha Cha Real Smooth

June 16, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

A confident sophomore feature from writer-director-star Cooper Raiff (who also serves as one of the producers and editors), Cha Cha Real Smooth is a delightful and touching heart-on-sleeve dramedy that delivers a pretty big emotional wallop while remaining sensitive to its characters.

Raiff stars in the film (which won the Audience Award at Sundance) as Andrew, a 22-year-old who is fresh out of college and stuck working at Meat Sticks in the mall food court, and forced to move back in with his mother (Leslie Mann), stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett) and younger brother David (Evan Assante) in New Jersey as he searches for better employment.

It’s through David that Andrew gets dragged to a family friend’s Bat Mitzvah, where he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), the young mother of an autistic teenaged daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who is sitting quietly at a corner table with her headphones and puzzle cube. Andrew bets Domino that he can get Lola on the dance floor, and his success not only gets him noticed by her mother, but also also nets him a job as a “party starter” for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Andrew gets to know Domino and Lola through mutually attending the weekly parties as the official DJ and dance leader, and Domino comes to trust him when he helps her through a tough situation. Seeing how good he is with Lola, she starts hiring him to come over and watch her, which allows Andrew and Domino to spend more time together as well. The heart of the film is the bond that forms between Andrew and Lola, and, in turn, Andrew and Domino.

Andrew becomes smitten with Domino, but she is engaged to be married to a lawyer (Raúl Castillo) who mostly works out of town, causing an emotional dilemma for both of them. Raiff’s screenplay allows the story to unfold organically, with the relationships between their characters evolving in a way that feels very natural, shedding the expected romantic comedy tropes to offer a much deeper and more poignant exploration of their will-they-or-won’t-they relationship.

There are a few areas where the film gets slightly held back. Andrew has a girlfriend, Maya (Amara Pedroso), who heads to Barcelona at the start of the film, and is barely fleshed out as a character. The animosity between Andrew and his stepdad also feels somewhat under-explored. But, for the most part, Cha Cha Real Smooth works as a compelling, character-driven film that feels very naturalistic and believable. At moments when the story seems to be dancing close to cliché, Raiff wisely pulls back to offer something much more grounded and real.

In the leading role, Raiff charmingly portrays an affable slacker still in the process of figuring out his life, portraying the nuance of his character’s complicated feelings towards Domino. Johnson (who produced the film and also helped craft her character) delivers a moving performance as a young mother who admits to being depressed but finds fulfillment in parenting her daughter, and is left experiencing her own complex feelings around Andrew. Through Lola, the film offers a positive and authentic depiction of autism, with Raiff admirably casting an actually autistic actress, newcomer Burghardt, in the role.

At 25-years-old, this is only Raiff’s second feature, following his 2020 debut Shithouse, and Cha Cha Real Smooth (named for the 2000 DJ Casper song “Cha-Cha Slide,” a staple of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs that gets memorably played here) continues to show great promise for him as a filmmaker and actor. We genuinely enjoy spending time with these characters, and it’s hard not to get teary-eyed during the film’s incredibly tender and bittersweet conclusion.

Cha Cha Real Smooth will be available to stream exclusively on Apple TV+ as of June 17th.

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