Review: Perceptive and Empathic 'Cha Cha Real Smooth' About Real People and the Roadblocks They Navigate

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 17, 2022

'Cha Cha Real Smooth'
'Cha Cha Real Smooth'  (Source:Apple TV+)

Writer/director/actor Cooper Raiff has crafted yet another intimately perceptive, empathic, and loving film about real people and the roadblocks they navigate.

With his first feature film, "Sh*those," Raiff proved he was a writer of uncanny depth well beyond his years. While it might have been a movie about college, it was no "Animal House." It was about so much more, recalling movies like the "Before Sunset" series and those from John Hughes.

Raiff repeats that success on a deeper level with "Cha Cha Real Smooth," navigating a narrative about growing up, learning what makes us happy and whole, and making empathy a priority.

Raiff plays Andrew, a 22-year-old trying to steer his way through life after college — something he's completely uncertain about. As a result, he has a dead-end job at a fast-food restaurant in the local mall's food court and lives in his mom's new husband's house, sleeping in his younger step-brother's bedroom. (Lesley Mann, Brad Garrett, and Evan Assante play those roles, respectively.)

Attending a bar mitzvah one night, he proves to the mothers attending that he's pretty darn good at getting a party started. He gleefully engages the kids and easily helps a middle-school autistic girl Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) find it in herself to dance. This leads to being offered a sort of "party starter" job for all the bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs in town.

Lola's mother Domino (Dakota Johnson) is taken with Andrew and his ability to get Lola out of her shell, and soon enough he is tasked with staying with her when Domino has other plans. But there's a genuine connection between he and Domino, and when he helps her out of a prickly situation one night, she begins to view him differently — and Andrew, her.

While there is an age difference between the two, Andrew doesn't care. He likes Domino and adores Lola. But he's still a kid, and trying to figure out life. Meanwhile, Domino has her own issues to navigate. Measured and soft-spoken, Domino is a good mother with an absent fiancé and a history of depression. But she's doing her best, and Andrew is something completely unexpected.

This is the crux of Raiff's affecting screenplay. His Andrew is affable and charming, and it's easy to see why anyone would fall in love or like with him. He never treats Lola like someone with a disability, and he genuinely wants the best for Domino, despite his feelings for her. But then again, he's young and his earnestness isn't always going to win out.

What Raiff does in his refreshingly simple story is create hundreds of beautiful, human moments between complicated people all trying their best to find moments of happiness and contentment. While Andrew doesn't understand what his mom sees in her new husband, that's something he's going to have to learn. The same with his relationship with Domino. She has a thorny past and an uneasy future, but she's making choices that she feels will be right for what she and Lola need. There's a beauty to the messiness of that, proving that joy can come not from a fairy-tale ending, but from the comfort we find in the world around us.

Johnson delivers a fascinating portrait of a mother in need of stability. Her manner of speaking is clear and direct, but quiet and understated at the same time. She embodies a maturity that defies her years, but an underlying sadness that she is clearly still trying to overcome. Andrew is a light out of that and his presence in her life changes her. It's a beautiful performance full of tiny moments that say more than mere words can. Just the way she moves her eyes or looks at others reveals so much under the surface, it's compelling to watch.

The rest of this stellar cast is outstanding as well. From Assante, to Mann, to newcomer Burghardt, there isn't a false note. Credit also has to be given to director Raiff. He truly knows how to not only get natural, beautifully realized performances out of his actors, but has written a script that must have made it easy.

These are the types of movies we lined up for in the '80s and '90s and that are sadly not as common anymore. It's a crowd-pleaser without being pandering. Its truths are profound, and the cumulative impact of the film is both heartbreaking and encouraging.

"Cha Cha Real Smooth" is one of the best films of the year, and Raiff is the real deal. Truly one of the best writers, directors, and actors working today and I can't wait to see what he does next.

"Cha Cha Real Smooth" premieres in theaters and on Apple TV+ on June 17th.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.