Cha Cha Real Smooth tells the story of 22-year old Andrew (writer/director Cooper Raiff), a recent college graduate who is stuck in his own purgatory before adulthood. Stuck in a dead-end job selling fast food and back living with his family including his mother (Leslie Mann), his step-father (Brad Garrett) and his younger brother David (Evan Assante). However, when taking his brother to his friend’s bat mitzvah, he discovers a talent for party-starting (amusingly named jig coordinating).
While at the party, Andrew befriends a young mother Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), in which inspires him to do something with his life that might spark something that he and everybody else close to him have never felt before or have forgotten over time.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is the sophomore effort from writer/director Cooper Raiff, whose debut film Shithouse (aka Freshman Year) had delighted audiences and critics alike. Note that this reviewer has not seen his debut film and will critique his latest effort on its own terms. If there is any indication of the quality of Shithouse, this reviewer is really looking forward to it now after having seen his latest.
As with coming-of-age films, they all have their certain tropes and stories that our young characters experience in order to learn more about themselves. In the case of Cha Cha Real Smooth, it is all about the fear of growing up. The characters are all well-rounded and have their own inner conflicts to deal with in terms of hesitance or lack of initiative within certain stages in their lives. They are never portrayed as cartoons and all have enough depth to become three-dimensional; even side characters including the stepfather as well as Domino’s fiancé Joseph (Raul Castilo), whose reticence signals more than he lets on.
Raiff also does not sugar-coat their predicaments and often presents the desperation and sorrow in emotionally stirring ways without resorting to sentimentality. The screenplay covers discussions about depression hit hard (about wanting to do things that are best for you but are simply unable to do so) while talks about memories to be treasured (as they are not going anywhere) and mentions of expectations versus reality provides depth over the actions of the characters that may seem problematic at first glimpse.
Raiff as a performer does a great job in being charming with his emotionally open exuberance while being mature and appropriately flawed when he resorts to regression over encountering something he has no clue what he is up against. Considering that he is in every scene, he has to have great chemistry with everybody involved. Thankfully, his chemistry with Johnson is understated and bittersweet along the lines of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate; his chemistry with Mann is playful and lovable and his chemistry with Assante is jovial and heart-warming.
The supporting cast are all stellar with their work, which also includes the perky Odeya Rush as Andrew’s fellow classmate and friend and especially Vanessa Burghardt, who is absolutely wonderful in the scene-stealing role as Lola; although Garrett feels a bit underused as the irritable, taciturn stepfather. Alongside Raiff, Johnson gives a stellar performance as Domino. A radiant screen performer, she shows remarkable nuance when she has to emotionally shield herself from others in order to maintain some sort of composure.
Overall, Raiff manages to capture the awkwardness, naivety and obliviousness of being in the position just before adulthood through astute observations, sharp humour, genuine characters and wonderful performances. Cha Cha Real Smooth is a funny, poignant crowd-pleasing winner.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Cha Cha Real Smooth is screening as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is being presented virtually between January 20th and 30th, 2022. For more information head to the official Sundance page.