Cha Cha Real Smooth, 2022.
Written and Directed by Cooper Raiff.
Starring Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Evan Assante, Vanessa Burghardt, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Raúl Castillo, Colton Osario, Amara Pedroso Saquel, Odeya Rush, Brooklyn Ramirez, Kelly O’Sullivan, and Javien Mercado.
A young man who works as a Bar Mitzvah party host strikes up a friendship with a mother and her autistic daughter.
There isn’t a better rising young filmmaker out there today exploring modern love and the tangled, messy knots of relationships better than writer and director Cooper Raiff. However, what elevates Cha Cha Real Smooth (the follow up to his underseen debut gem Shithouse, a college-set story that examines ghosting with empathy for both sides of the equation) above similar tales of post-college 22-year-olds searching for purpose and love is its willingness to understand every character here without vilifying anyone (especially when the plot here could have quickly devolved into something formulaic and conventional while still functioning as a winning crowdpleaser). More specifically, Cooper Raiff is not afraid to simultaneously tell multiple love stories.
A brief prologue introduces Andrew (Cooper Raiff once again performing double duty, and for a good reason considering he probably understands the character he has created more than anyone and has the acting chops to pull it off, potentially breakthrough into superstardom), but first as a 12-year-old on a party dance floor, entering a new phase of life. He’s naturally developing certain feelings, which leads him to incorrectly and amusingly assume the pretty dance instructor is giving him flirtatious looks. Later in the night, he asks her out on a date and is met with heartbreaking rejection.
Ten years later, searching for a soulmate hasn’t exactly gotten any easier. Anthony’s crush (it appears they may have also had something more), Maya (Amara Pedroso Saquel), wants to continue academics in Barcelona. At the same time, it’s clear Andrew would only be following along to be with her rather than doing what he wants or making something of himself. Once that relationship is off the table, he develops a fling with a former college classmate Macy (Odeya Rush), in between working a dead-end job at a corndog shop inside a mall fast-food restaurant court.
Through some lucky fate, Andrew also winds up taking his brother David (Evan Assante wonderfully playing what feels like a mirrored version of 12-year-old Andrew, crushing on a classmate and seeking advice on making moves and how to be a good partner) to a bat mitzvah where he both becomes the life of the party and meets Domino (arguably the best performance and most richly drawn character of Dakota Johnson’s career so far) and her autistic teenage daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt, another fantastic find here that will hopefully receive more work). This also leads to a side gig as a party starter that allows for numerous lively needle drops.
As a filmmaker, Cooper Raiff pulls off a magic trick here where the character of Andrew uses his unfiltered sense of humor and bluntness to strike up a friendship with Lola without the story feeling as if it’s using her autism and struggles with bullying as a nice guy door to become appealing to Domino. The character and script both understand that most of the time, it’s easier for special-needs people to open up as long as someone treats them like normal human beings. There are so many ways for this kind of narrative to go south, all of them largely avoided here (although I do wish she had more to do in the third act; it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put any removed scenes that might exist back in for the inevitable theatrical release). Not to mention, it’s the first of many heartwarming moments witnessing Andrew break Lola out of her shell, convincing her to have some fun on the dance floor. Also, as that particular dynamic develops, a sensation emerges that Vanessa Burghardt had a great deal of input on lending authenticity to both character and autism.
Similarly, the narrative doesn’t lazily construct Domino as an object of desire. It is interested in the struggles of being a single mom to a child with autism and how that cuts down on personal free time. She has a lawyer fiancé named Joe (Raúl Castillo), who frequently travels to Chicago for cases, but also has some uncertainty about what she wants in life, which is organically complicated further as Andrew ingratiates himself as both a charming person and reliable sitter for Lola. Again, none of this is toxic or harmful, and there are no antagonists here, just people navigating the messiness of love with endearing naturalism that mimics life. Meanwhile, Andrew works through his own emotions and how to handle the situation by periodically giving romantic advice to David, which is sweet even if there are some flaws in his steps that he will come to realize the hard way. He also doesn’t want to sell corndogs and liven up parties forever, and starts looking into a real job working with ALS children.
There’s also an inference that Andrew doesn’t want to end up like his overly serious stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett sliding right into yet another monotone role ideally) and would like to move all of his parent’s house as much as he does love his loving mother (a pleasant and funny performance from the always reliable Leslie Mann). Cha Cha Real Smooth is a charming and bracingly honest movie about the roughness of planning for the future and the anxieties of relationships. It refuses to slip into clichés or betray any of these characters, keeping them grounded, hilarious, honest, and smartly written until the end.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com