“Cha Cha Real Smooth” – Sundance Review

Cooper Raiff’s second feature “Cha Cha Real Smooth” elicited just about every emotion or feeling imaginable. There are moments that are so joyous, others that induce a strong anxiety, and it’s just an all around emotional rollercoaster. It all builds to a film that feels so real and while obviously a narrative feature film, feels documentarian with its naturalistic dialogue and down-to-Earth performances.

Alexander (Cooper Raiff) is coming right out of college and isn’t sure what life will hold for him. After his girlfriend travels away to Barcelona, he moves back home to save to eventually join her. Over the summer, he finds a way to get a job as a party-starter for the local bar mitzvahs where he meets the autistic Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) and her mother Domino (Dakota Johnson). Andrew and Domino share great amounts of chemistry, despite her lawyer fiancé Joseph (Raul Castill) who is also found to be out of town. Andrew is no stranger to his attraction towards older women, something the film isn’t shy to show after the Licorice Pizza-like dynamic in the opening scene of the film where he professes his love to Bella, a party-starter who he is brutally in love with.

Other dips and peaks of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” showcase the neatly cared for relationships between Andrew and his bi-polar mother (Leslie Mann), his recently tied down younger brother David (Evan Assante) looking for relationship advice to finally grab his first kiss, and the lovely moments with Lola which were some of the best scenes of the film. Andrew is incredibly patients with her, and like she says when asked by her mother what she thinks of him being a sitter for her: “He probably would not treat me like a baby.” They grow quite attached to each other, creating a bond for life.

Another over-riding relationship is that of Andrew and his new step-father (Brad Garrett) that he can’t stop butting heads with, until he shows his true affection and commitment to his mother after a kerfuffle at another bar mitzvah Andrew is party-starting. The car ride after, you can see an incredibly sudden change in attitude after Andrew sees this isn’t just a man that has invaded his family’s life, but a man who makes his mother happy. He’s a man who takes so much off of her plate, and will do anything to protect her and keep her safe.

What the film keeps coming back to is that spark between Johnson and Raiff, having so many flirtatious moments together the screen cries without their little moments together. They almost cross that barrier several times, but it becomes clear that while Andrew refuses to give up on her while she just enjoys being around something who makes her feel alive. He’s the exact person that is so dangerous to the fragility of Domino’s life. He’s so free and able to do anything with his life, he’s 22 and she’s old as she says.

Plot and everything aside, Cooper Raiff’s performance is so grounded and feels nothing short of real. There are moments when he’ll just be at work or laying on the floor looking through his phone and will just mumble out a meme (i.e. “You’re not that guy, pal”). In other films it’s something that feels so entirely forced, but when executed in a nonchalant way, where it isn’t played as a joke but a clue in to the character and what goes on in their head, it works very well and credits to his performance just can’t be said enough. This trickles down as well to other performances, which prove Raiff’s skills as a director/screenwriter to be equally as strong.

Overall, the film has a lot of the American indie-film-premiering-at-Sundance vibes that are expected with the characters trying to find themselves, but when it’s done right and the audience can plug themselves in to the characters within, it elevates from being a niche indie drama, to being something incredibly grounded that teeters the line between that narrative drama and real-life experience. It joins the canon of films about self-discovery and moving on in life without those who made such a huge impact on you. And if it all leads to getting to spend time with Dakota Johnson and a score co-written by Este Haim, doesn’t that make it all worth it? I rest my case.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” earned itself the Audience Award at Sundance where it competed in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and was recently picked up by Apple TV+ so by year-end expect to catch this film streaming.

My Rating: