Review – Cha Cha Real Smooth

Following his comedic, indie-breakout success, Shithouse, writer/director/actor, Cooper Raiff, stole the show at this year’s Sundance Film Festival when he premiered Cha Cha Real Smooth, a dramedy about high-spirited college graduate, Andrew (Raiff)  who in a very relatable way, doesn’t have complete direction for the trajectory of his life. Chaperoning his younger brother to a Bar Mitzvah, and subsequently using his natural charm and desire to keep the party alive, leads to Andrew being offered a job by the local Jewish parents to be a ‘party starter’ for all the school kids upcoming Bar Mitzvah’s. Combining his love and energy for partying, along with his need for cash, this opportunity leads to an encounter with Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt in her feature film debut). Immediately striking up a friendship with the normally reserved Lola, then leads to a stronger connection between Andrew and Domino, but a connection not without its challenges.

Already hailed as one of the most heart-warming, feel-good movies of 2022 following its Sundance premiere, Cha Cha Real Smooth was high up on my list of anticipated releases for the year, and it did not disappoint in the slightest. In only his second feature film, Cooper Raiff has displayed an immense talent in creating authentic and fully-realised characters, and placing them in scenarios that demand genuine, grounded emotion from the performances. Something that Raiff and Dakota Johnson (as well as Burghardt) absolutely nail in this film. Andrew and Domino, just like real life, are incredibly complicated people, but Raiff’s script and direction allows the audience to pick up on their nuances and personalities through their actions, rather than just dumping dialogue exposition that tells the audience who they are and what they feel. The subtleties in the performances and the characters is undeniably engaging, making for an experience that is full of emotional highs and lows.

Andrew’s girlfriend is moving to Barcelona for her studies, and although his intentions are to follow her there with a love-struck heart and puppy-dog eyes. However, his infrequent work coming from the hot-dog centric fast food outlet ‘Meat Sticks’, unfortunately, hasn’t left him with the finances to pursue his romance in Spain, leaving him still at his parents house, looking for a way out, but his comfortability and uncertainty of the future restricting him from taking that first step. Which is the common theme throughout the movie, working up the courage to be brave and bold to either let people in your life, or let yourself out of theirs. Outside of Andrew’s internal conflict, his brother, David (Evan Assante) is nervous about his first kiss with his girlfriend, often pleading for advice from Andrew. Domino silently suffers from depressive episodes, but pours her love and affection into Lola to keep her going. And finally, Lola herself frequently deals with the ostracisation from her fellow classmates because of her autism. All of these elements that the characters deal with, circle around the heartwarming theme of emotional bravery, utilising many quite serious topics including miscarriages, mental healtth disorders and disability to explore the theme, and with them all being handled with such compassion and care from Raiff.

The opening scene of Cha Cha Real Smooth shows a younger Andrew at a Bar Mitzvah of his own, in which he becomes infatuated with the sweet and attractive woman (who is very much so out of his age range), and confesses to his mother (played by Leslie Mann) that he is indeed, in love. Young Andrew even goes to the lengths of asking his first love (in his eyes) out on date, in which, even with the confession of flattery, he is politely rejected. However, this scene is a perfect set up for Andrew’s attraction for women who are ten, maybe fifteen years, older than him. It’s another testament to Raiff’s writing, because it’s never once repeated that he has a thing for women older than him, but the allure is always in the air during his interactions with Domino throughout the film.

This is where the main heart of the story lies, in the electric chemistry between Andrew and Domino. Having so many weights on the development of their friendship – whether that is the age difference, Lola, their own personal demons – each moment the two share on screen just screams ‘hurry up and kiss’! But, simultaneously, the movie can make you realise the reasons why they shouldn’t, making the audience enigmatically feel the conflict the two lead characters share. From a performance perspective, Raiff shines as Andrew, injecting so much genuine energy into the film, while also holding it strong when reality begins to dawn on Andrew. Dakota Johnson has a truly demanding job in balancing the role of a mother, love interest, depression sufferer and much more. Her dynamic range is shown in this film, solidifying her as so much more than the 50 Shades star some may consider her to be. Also serving as a producer on the film, Johnson’s involvement goes beyond reading the lines, and feels like she has a genuine interest and passion for these roles and these movies, something that is truly felt in her performance.

Casting Vannesa Burghardt, an actress who is on the autism spectrum, is a huge win for the inclusivity of autstic actors, but it is also displayed beautifully on screen, never once feeling disingenuous or pandering. The relationship between Andrew and Lola opens up humorous banter as the two figure out their way of communicating with each other, but also leads to the most heart-string pulling moments of the story, inducing a plethora of happy and sad tears. A moment between Andrew and Lola leads to the discovery that her social interactions can be exhausting, and that Lola enjoys time alone to decompress and re-energise. Again, Raiff’s ability to script these subtle human moments serves as a two-prong attack of developing the relationship between the two, but also informing the audience about some of the difficulties people on the autism spectrum can face in their day to day lives.

Cha Cha Real Smooth transcends the generic, feel-good, rom-com-drama trope by being a truly authentic look at love and emotional bravery, with characters that are immensely engaging and a story that is full of care, passion and heart. Cooper Raiff is making waves in the indie-film circuit with his genuine ability to tell human stories in the most relatable way, but also backing up that filmmaking ability with a strong performance. If you’re not hysterically laughing during Cha Cha Real Smooth, you’ll be crying, but the tears are equally happy as they are heart-breaking.

Cha Cha Real Smooth played at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Thank you to the programmers and staff for giving me a chance to see it. Head to https://www.sff.org.au/ for more info. The movie will also premiere on Apple Tv+ on Friday, June 17.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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