No sophomore slump for Cooper Raiff. The writer/director/actor, who made a stunning feature debut with 2020's Shithouse, cements his status as one of our most exciting young filmmakers with his latest, Cha Cha Real Smooth, which debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The movie's title is inspired by a lyric in the song “Cha Cha Shuffle” – that instructional dance song played at almost every single wedding you've ever attended. Crazy as it seems, the title is perfect, due to the main character's occupation, but also his efforts to get the various aspects of his life in sync.
Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college grad. He moves back home with his mother and stepfather (Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett) and his little brother, then takes a dead-end job at a mall fast food eatery called Meat Sticks. When he attends a bar mitzvah one day, Andrew ends up becoming the life of the party. He even encourages an autistic girl named Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) to get on the dance floor, to the delight of her mother Domino (Dakota Johnson). From there, two significant things occur. First, Andrew falls into a job as a party host, traversing the local bar mitzvah circuit. Second, he becomes close to Lola and, especially, Domino, who is engaged to a man named Joseph (Raul Castillo).
You may assume that Cha Cha Real Smooth becomes a story about whether Domino will leave Joseph for Andrew. In reality, it goes a slightly different direction. Feelings do develop between the two, although not necessarily romantic ones. As they increasingly bond, Domino reveals personal insecurities that underlie the goals she has for herself. Andrew, meanwhile, isn't sure what his goals are. Graduating from college has left him slightly adrift. Both characters are in tenuous places in their lives, and meeting each other is the impetus toward determining what stability will look like going forward.
Cha Cha Real Smooth ultimately proves to be about how people sometimes come along at just the right time and in just the right way to help us achieve clarity. Watching Andrew and Domino serve that purpose for each other is gratifying. The movie's best scene finds the two of them in her kitchen, talking about their troubles while sucking on freeze pops. It's an interesting amalgamation of qualities, because the characters are being vulnerable, yet also using humor to soften the pain of what they discuss. The freeze pops, while chaste, possess an erotic undertone that reminds us of how easily two people can cross a line. Such is the magic of the picture. There's great depth to its portrait of human connection.
As an actor, Raiff once again proves to have charisma by the truckload. He's hilarious and charming, suggesting how being the life of the party is Andrew's way of compensating for a sense of emptiness he feels inside. Dakota Johnson matches him well. At every turn, she makes Domino's cognitive dissonance palpable. The actress gives a heartfelt performance as a woman who knows what she wants, is afraid of getting it, and needs to be reminded that goodness still exists in the world in order to continue taking the necessary steps toward fulfillment. This might be the very best work she's done onscreen to date.
Castillo, Mann, Garrett, and Burghardt are all excellent in supporting roles, helping to add layers of meaning to the film's themes. Cha Cha Real Smooth is funny and warm and moving, a human-centered story that speaks to the universal need to know that at least one other person in this big crazy world understands us. In an era where “brand” movies about superheroes, slashers, and secret agents dominate, we're lucky to have someone like Cooper Raiff reminding us how beautiful tales about normal, identifiable people can be.
out of four
Cha Cha Real Smooth is rated R for language and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.