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As writer, director, producer, and star, Cooper Raiff has created what looks like your typically quirky indie dramedy with “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” And his sophomore feature does indeed include some familiar elements, including young adults stuck in a state of arrested development and kids who articulate their emotions with a wisdom beyond their years.
But Raiff offers some impressive tonal mixtures and narrative surprises along the way, and even though his third act sags a bit, the performances—particularly from an achingly melancholy Dakota Johnson— remain compelling until the end. Just the fact that he’s only 25 years old and he’s making movies with this level of stealthy complexity is exciting.
Raiff stars as Andrew, a recent graduate of Tulane University whose main goal is to earn enough money to follow his girlfriend to Barcelona. He’s mostly aimless, scraping funds together by living at home in suburban New Jersey, and working at a mall food court restaurant with the awesomely terrible name of Meat Sticks. But he stumbles into an actual job as a party-starter on the local bar and bat mitzvah circuit, urging awkward adolescents and their slightly inebriated parents to get on the dance floor and do the Electric Slide. Raiff and his production design team clearly had a ball coming up with the specific details for all these themed events, and the way he captures the nervous energy of this youthful time of flux will make you shudder in recognition.
On one of these nights, he connects with Johnson’s character, a single mom named Domino, and her teenage daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who’s autistic. The fact that he’s drawn to them and insistent that they have a good time feels like a natural expression of who this guy is: a big-hearted goofball, sweet and upbeat and—above all else—eager to laugh at himself to ensure everyone else is laughing. An opening flashback to a decade earlier, when he was a 12-year-old guest at a party like this, reveals that Andrew has always been a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. He may not be the most complicated character here, but the consistency of his simplicity allows others to evolve who aren’t quite so sure of themselves. Raiff is likable and often hilarious, but he’s also in every single scene, so one could imagine that his idiosyncratic sense of humor might eventually become grating to some viewers.
Andrew’s attraction to Domino is obvious, even though she informs him she has a fiancé, a lawyer who happens to be out of town a lot for work. (A stoic and stiff Raúl Castillo drops in sporadically to assert his territoriality over these two women, and while his outsider nature is the point, it’s also a distraction. He just doesn’t make sense in this world.) But it’s his friendship with Lola that’s the real surprise—not that it exists, but rather how it blossoms. It would have been so easy and lazy to make this relationship play out in a feel-good, mawkish way. Lola is a few years older than the other kids in her grade, and she’s the frequent target of bullying. But rather than swoop in as her savior, Andrew shows genuine interest in her as a pal; Domino asks if he’ll babysit Lola some nights, which he gladly does, but he treats her as an equal and takes an interest in her hobbies. Burghardt shows great poise and comic timing in her first film role, and is a joy to watch.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” follows these unexpected relationships as they develop and provide Andrew with some much-needed purpose. Raiff and Johnson have an easy, teasing chemistry with each other; the authenticity of their conversations and the intimate way they’re shot frequently make you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on them. Domino is damaged and she doesn’t always make good choices, but the fact that Raiff’s script doesn’t deify her makes her so much more interesting. Conversely, Evan Assante as Andrew’s middle school-aged brother, David, has a disarming wholesomeness about him, and the scenes in which big brother offers him romantic advice can be quite charming. Other characters aren’t nearly so well developed, though, including Andrew’s mom (Leslie Mann), whose main trait is a bipolar condition that’s discussed but never shown, and his stepdad (Brad Garrett), with whom he exchanges passive-aggressive barbs at the dinner table.
But Raiff’s ambition to break free from sentimental formula and forge a path of his own is clear, making him an exciting young filmmaker to watch.
Now playing in select theaters and available on Apple TV+.
Cooper Raiff as Andrew
Dakota Johnson as Domino
Vanessa Burghardt as Lola
Evan Assante as David
Leslie Mann as Andrew's Mom
Brad Garrett as Stepdad Greg
Raúl Castillo as Joseph