'Cha Cha Real Smooth' Dances to Its Own Beat

Directed by Cooper Raiff

Starring Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burghardt, Odeya Rush, Evan Assante, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett

Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

BY Prabhjot BainsPublished Jun 16, 2022

Cha Cha Real Smooth is named after a specific line from "Cha Cha Slide" by DJ Casper, a 2000 song that has become a staple at school dances and parties. That line marks a moment where the listener is freed from the song's choreographed move set and able to dance however they please. Its an incredibly fitting title since, in that same vein, the film continually dances to its own beat, as its bracingly honest and heartfelt conversation about post-graduate flux makes all the right moves.

Cooper Raiff stars as the wayward Andrew, who is fresh out of college and out of ideas as he finds himself back at home with his family in New Jersey. That quickly changes, as his knack for party-starting lands him a gig as a motivational dancer at the bat mitzvahs of his younger brother's classmates. When he sparks a friendship with a local mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), he finally discovers a meaningful direction, even though it's defined by an impossible romance.

While this narrative has all the makings of a typical festival darling, it traverses new subtle territories that meaningfully touch on quirky truths many experience but no one is eager to share. This insistence on sheer emotional vulnerability makes it easier to invest in the story, as every embarrassing thought and concern uttered by Andrew rings with the palpability of a bitter but resonant fact. 

Moreover, the quirky scenarios of Cha Cha offer heart and nuance, as they never devolve into a cheap attempt for a laugh. Instead, the comedy is integrated into the film's quest for emotional and psychological revelations. This injects a dynamism into the comedy that is wholly relatable and utterly natural. Take a great scene where Andrew and Domino are eating Freezies in a quiet kitchen; their conversation is rife with the emotional complexities of a burgeoning romance, while still being underpinned by a witty charm. This same aura radiates throughout the film, and whether a comedic or dramatic scene is unfolding, Cha Cha never forgets to bring the heart and soul to its sincere vision of young adulthood.

Director, writer and star Cooper Raiff breaks down any indication of a sophomore slump following 2020's Shithouse, as his tender direction maintains a swift forward momentum that complements the emotional arcs. His comedy is emboldened by great editing that serves and acts as the punchline to many jokes, while the cinematography is bolstered by stellar lighting that lends a warm colour palette to the passion unfolding on screen. Additionally, Raiff's music choices also thankfully reinforce the film's thematic ambitions, rather than distract — which is a common drawback with many Sundance favourites.

Raiff's Andrew possesses an infectious charisma that is made even more tangible by the intense chemistry he shares with Johnson's Domino. Their sexual tension is tinged with an endearing persona that brings their romance to life. Andrew and Domino's relationship bridges the divide between a nascent adulthood and a weathered maturity, as their longing eyes yearn for something that can't be. It's a central relationship that wholly delivers. Raiff's casting of Vanessa Burghardt as Domino's neurodivergent daughter pays off as well, as her authentic portrayal finally lends an agency to a community that is often part of a shallow plot point.

While Cha Cha Real Smooth rides some plot conveniences and convention to its eventual home run of a finale, it never fails to offer fresh insights into the aimlessness of this period in life. Its insistence on vulnerability is key to its winning formula, and it's a great showcase for a filmmaker who is committed to an earnest vision of universal struggles.

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