CAST: Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Raúl Castillo, Odeya Rush, Vanessa Burghardt, Kelly O’Sullivan, Evan Assante, Colton Osorio, Liam Jones
RUNNING TIME: 107 mins
BASICALLY…: A young party host (Raiff) strikes up a friendship with a single mother (Johnson) and her daughter (Burghardt)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Despite not having seen director-writer-star Cooper Raiff’s debut feature Freshman Year (renamed from its slightly more vulgar original title Shithouse), I was still rather keen on seeing his follow-up Cha Cha Real Smooth. Not only did the movie receive a warm reception at Sundance earlier this year – where it received the Audience Award among the main US Dramatic Competition, solidifying its crowd-pleasing potential – but the even warmer heart that everyone was raving about got me curious, especially when I heard that Raiff had also cast an actual person with autism in a major role (which, after the disastrous and dangerous Music, felt like a refreshing sigh of relief).
To no surprise, Cha Cha Real Smooth turned out to be just as sweet and soulful as I was expecting. It isn’t anything life-changing, or even that deep when compared to a lot of other coming-of-age dramadies, but it is a likeable tale told by a storyteller who knows exactly when and how to turn on the charm.
Raiff plays Andrew, a 22-year-old university graduate who’s moved back in with his mother and step-father (Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett respectively), and like most in their early twenties he has absolutely no idea what to do with himself; he’s working a dead-end job at a fast food mall outlet, barely saving enough to fly out to be with his girlfriend in Barcelona, and semi-reluctantly chaperoning his younger brother David (Evan Assante) to several Bar Mitzvahs. It is at one of them that he not only finds a unique talent for party starting, which he is subsequently hired to do for many of the upcoming Bar Mitzvahs, but he also crosses paths with Domino (Dakota Johnson, also a producer on the film) and her autistic teen daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Despite being a few years older than him, the emotionally complex Domino captures Andrew’s attention, and he soon forms a close bond with mother and daughter which soon forces him to confront his own priorities as a young adult.
In the wrong hands, a movie like Cha Cha Real Smooth would be insufferable. One false move, and you’d be watching a movie about a whiny man-child lusting after an older woman for just over ninety minutes, which is a plot from the 1980s that wouldn’t have aged well forty years later. It’s admirable, then, that Raiff maintains a consistent charm throughout his movie, as both filmmaker and lead actor, which grounds the movie while also calling out some of the problematic implications from such an archaic plot. Behind the camera, Raiff is gentle with tone, rarely deviating from the comforting blend of comedy and drama (save for one or two physical altercations which teeter on the edge of full-on screwball) in addition to lending enough weight to his characters that they feel as real as they can be amidst this slightly heightened environment. In front of it, Raiff pulls off the frustrated millennial archetype with surprising ease, but with enough charisma to make you enjoy being in his company, even when he is being kind of a dick to people for no good reason, like his step-father who seems like a fine enough guy but is always the butt of some rather mean jokes.
Raiff also manages to share strong chemistry with just about everyone, from the always elegant Dakota Johnson to a somewhat underused Leslie Mann, to the bright newcomer Vanessa Burghardt who almost steals the entire movie. Burghardt, who (in a real win for neurodiverse representation) is also autistic in real life, is the secret weapon of Cha Cha Real Smooth, displaying an efficient sassiness to her straightforward dialogue which makes the delivery work as well as it does on paper. She also just acts well; I have seen so many non-autistic actors over the years who focus so much on the physicality and verbal tics of their characters that they forget to actually give a deep and meaningful performance, but Berghardt doesn’t have that problem, not just because she actually has autism but because she is able to dive deep into what makes her character more than just her neurological condition. Hopefully, if she so chooses, Berghardt will continue to flex her natural abilities in further movies to come.
While in parts the movie plays things relatively safe, with a meaningful but standard message about self-acceptance and learning to make the most out of life, it’s easily carried by an irresistible likeability by a talented filmmaker and ensemble cast, who all help make Cha Cha Real Smooth a humble and sweet-natured comfort movie that’s easy to enjoy by most.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Cha Cha Real Smooth is a likeable, if somewhat safe, comedy-drama from filmmaker and star Cooper Raiff, who manages to find the charm and heart in a lead character who could have been insufferable in the wrong hands, and shares charismatic on-screen chemistry with others including Dakota Johnson and outstanding newcomer Vanessa Burghardt.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is now available on Apple TV+.
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