By Henry Chandonnet
Cha Cha Real Smooth is sappy but welcome: it is an unconventional comedy that offers a rare dose of empathy for the family in these anxious times.
Cha Cha Real Smooth directed by Cooper Raiff. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and streaming on Apple TV+
Director/actor Cooper Raiff may have struck gold with his niche genre of choice, the socially complicated yet emotionally gratifying crowd-pleaser. He is one of the few directors at the moment whose films effortlessly (and pleasurably) mix emotional complexity and straight ahead storytelling. That was true of S**thouse, his debut feature that won the SXSW prize for Best Narrative Feature. Unfortunately, it was poorly distributed by IFC. He has come back strong with his new film Cha Cha Real Smooth. It manages to range from the comedic to the melodramatic. Along the way you cry, laugh, and even cringe.
Cha Cha Real Smooth‘s protagonist is Andrew, played by Raiff himself. After moving back home following his college graduation, Andrew takes his brother David (Evan Assante) to a bar mitzvah. Learning that the planners had not hired a party-starter, Andrew takes it upon himself to get everyone on the dance floor. In the course of doing that he meets Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), a young autistic girl in David’s grade who is uncomfortable dancing in crowds. Andrew forms a bond with Lola, eventually getting her up and dancing. Grateful, Lola’s mom Domino (Dakota Johnson) asks Andrew to babysit Lola when she and her fiancé are out. A relationship blossoms between Andrew and Domino, though not much time is spent on the romance. Instead, Cha Cha Real Smooth focuses on how this affair tests the relationships in Andrew’s life, from Domino and Lola to family ties, including Andrew’s mother (Leslie Mann). These connections are nuanced and personalized to the point that what initially looks like a silly little movie about a bar mitzvah party-starter ends up exploring how we grow with (and away from) those around us.
The ensemble cast is strong, but what makes Cha Cha Real Smooth work so well is Raiff, who takes on the roles of writer, director, and leading player. His performance as Andrew is where Raiff excels. Andrew is a bit of a mixed bag — he is not always sympathetic, but we must not lose our interest in his potential. He has enough emotional intelligence to connect with Lola, but not enough to treat his stepdad with respect. Andrew is what gives the narrative its complexity; this is a (too) likeable guy who makes some very bad decisions. In other words, Raiff is smart enough, in his treatment of Andrew, to reject the standard “nice guy” trope. And that is refreshing.
Cha Cha Real Smooth also overturns rom-com laziness through its treatment of difficult social issues, specifically with Lola. It should be noted that a selection of celebrated autistic writers have written perceptive pieces celebrating Cha Cha Real Smooth and its representation of autism. Admirably, the film is determined to represent (and protect) its neurodivergent character. At one memorable point, Andrew talks to Domino about how difficult it must be to raise an autistic child. Domino responds how grateful she is for Lola. The scene is handled well: it is not lazily sentimental but a bracing confession of a mother who loves her challenging child. So much for the usual “romantic” complications; Domino and Lola’s relationship is one of the film’s backbones, a vision of strong familial love.
The self-conscious decision to present domestic life through such a kindhearted lens is revealing. Every day the media is filled with columns detailing the resentment Gen-Z holds for the older generations. Some of this anger, of course, is merited: think the climate crisis, economic collapse, etc. That being said, it is not all acrimony — there is still much love to be had. In Cha Cha Real Smooth‘s final moments Andrew sits for a brief reckoning session with his mother. He thanks her for helping him to have a good childhood: one can sense here that Raiff’s film is gently defending the warmth of the American family. Gen-Z may harbor a grudge, but that does not (and need not) undercut our truest bonds. This film draws on the love between a mother and a son, between brothers, between a mother and a daughter. Cha Cha Real Smooth is somewhat sappy but welcome: it is an unconventional comedy that offers a rare dose of empathy for the family in these anxious times.
Henry Chandonnet is a current student at Tufts University double majoring in English and Political Science with a minor in Economics. On-campus, he is an Arts Editor for the Tufts Daily, the preeminent student-run campus publication. You can reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @HenryChandonnet.