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Sundance Review: Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth” Is a Charmer

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 27th, 2022

Cooper Raiff, director of CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alexandria Lior.

Cha Cha Real Smooth (Cooper Raiff, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.

Cooper Raiff, the writer/director (and star) of the 2020 S#!%house, his debut film, appears a likable sort, at least on screen, which makes him the perfect actor for the lead of his sophomore effort, Cha Cha Real Smooth. In this latest, he plays Andrew, a recent college grad living at home as he figures out life’s next steps. Much like S#!%house, it’s a coming-of-age tale (it will be interesting to see what Raiff attempts once he outgrows this genre), a kind of almost-sequel, even if the characters are all different. Still, the details and situations engage us both emotionally and intellectually, and are often quite funny and touching, as well. A strong supporting cast helps, too.

When first we encounter Andrew, he’s a pre-teen, falling in love with the party planner at a friend’s bar mitzvah. She’s flattered, but she’s also 22, so Andrew’s mom (Leslie Mann, Blithe Spirit) crawls into the back seat of the car to comfort her son. This is a kid who feels deeply, even if his instincts lead him slightly astray. Though but a brief prelude, this sequence will pay some dividends later. 

Cut to 10 years later, when Andrew is graduating from Tulane. His girlfriend is off to Spain while he has no definite plans, their future together highly uncertain (for him, as she’s pretty sure she’s moving on). Back in New Jersey, Andrew moves into younger brother David’s room, doing his best to tolerate stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett, Gloria Bell), a new addition since the opener. His dreams of working at a non-profit are currently dead in the water, and instead he takes a gig at a local fast-food joint.

l-r: Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

When Andrew takes David (Evan Assante) to one of his classmates’ bat mitzvah, everyone there is impressed with Andrew’s ability to get the party started, especially single mother Domino (Dakota Johnson, The Lost Daughter), whose autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt, who also has autism), takes a shine to the young man. So does Domino, albeit in a very different way, despite their age difference (though Johnson, herself, looks barely older than Raiff). Unfortunately, despite this (kind of) realization of a childhood fantasy for Andrew (as in, older woman reciprocating), things quickly become more complicated. And therein lies the conflict, along the ups and downs of the casual party-planning business Andrew starts in the wake of his initial success.

For much of the movie, Raiff deftly manages the development of story and relationships, balancing drama and comedy in an even more assured way than in S#!%house. Though the potential romance between Andrew and Domino plays a central role, it is by no means the only important element. There is also Andrew’s interactions within his family, with a high-school classmate, and especially Lola, with whom he builds a rather special rapport. All along, we watch an essentially sweet human being be tested by circumstance, fail, and then get back up.

It’s an endearing journey, with nary a false note. Raiff upholds his side of things with enormous charm, and is well matched by the ensemble, all of whom rise to the challenge. Johnson brings real pathos to her part as an ostensibly older person going through her own transition to serious adulthood, and Mann is her usual highly watchable self. Both Burghardt and Assante are equally winning in their own roles. Time to grow up? Perhaps, but in the meantime one can cha cha, real smooth.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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