The Sundance indie drama starring white guys working out their problems became a joke over the last 20 years. With pseudo-hit after pseudo-hit landing with critical acclaim, the market quickly oversaturated. Whether we can blame this on the Duplass brothers, or the dozens of other filmmakers who attempted to cash in, is still a mystery. However, when Cha Cha Real Smooth arrived at Sundance this year, it spawned a different response. With up-and-coming filmmaker, writer, and actor Cooper Raiff in the starring role Cha Cha Real Smooth subverts the tropes we’ve come to associate with this kind of movie. With its heart on display and comedy gold throughout, Cha Cha Real Smooth charms at every turn.
After returning from college, Andrew (Raiff) seems directionless. His mother (Leslie Mann) and stepfather (Brad Garrett) push Andrew to spend time with his younger brother David (Evan Assante) while the graduate figures out his next steps. When the two attend a Bar Mitzvah, Andrew helps liven up the crowd, pushing some parents to request his services as a “party starter” for their children’s events. During these events, Andrew grows close to Domino (Dakota Johnson), a young mother, and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). As Andrew and Domino’s relationship develops, the party-starting phenom begins to see a life for himself.
Raiff established himself as a triple threat with his 2019 film, Shithouse, a poorly named but brilliantly executed story of a boy finding his footing in college. The young talent starred in, wrote, and directed that feature, opening the door for Cha Cha Real Smooth to excel as a sophomore feature. The two feature some common themes, resulting in Cha Cha coming off as something of a spiritual sequel. Yet Raiff dives far deeper into the intricacies of adult life in Cha Cha, establishing himself as a vulnerable filmmaker. Raiff’s earnest storytelling comes from a bygone era, but Raiff’s commitment to honest emotional beats feels revolutionary within the genre.
Raiff’s performance style gels quite nicely with Johnson’s, as the two young stars build instant chemistry. There’s curiosity and passion in their feelings for each other, but where those feelings will lead is very much up in the air. A lesser film would take The Graduate premise (young man falls for the mother) and run with it. Yet Raiff’s keenly aware of how tired and obvious his film would become. Instead, Raiff opens himself up to Burghardt’s character, a neurodiverse newcomer who steals every scene she enters. Their relationship becomes the emotional throughline of the film, making us yearn for the two to share the screen together. Raiff plays into his aloof persona when he’s with Burghardt, and the two help the film come alive.
As a director, Raiff shines again. He knows when to shift the focus of the narrative, handing the story over to other characters for short, heartfelt bursts. This helps Cha Cha Real Smooth develop its ensemble with ease. Every performer, including Assante, Garrett, Mann, and Raúl Castro, gets a moment to shine. Raiff allows his screenplay to celebrate and valorize its characters when they are heroic. It also lets its most likable characters make mistakes, providing a unique level of insight. Many relationships only make sense to those within the relationship. Raiff takes this concept and supercharges it, adding nuance to how each character interacts with those around them. Through this process, he creates empathetic moments that ring true.
While Cha Cha Real Smooth will be seen as an arrival for Raiff, the cast shines at every turn. This provides Johnson one of her most nuanced roles while also playing into her star power. Raiff knows she’s too big for this movie, and he uses her inherent charisma to communicate that Domino does not belong in this town. Burghardt’s comedic timing matches well with Raiff’s, and both land jokes regardless of their situations. Even Mann and Garrett make sense within the film, opening the door for moments of growth. For Raiff, Cha Cha Real Smooth continues his upward ascent to stardom. This will undoubtedly open more doors and push him down the path to becoming one of our next auteurs.
Alan’s Grade: 9 out of 10
Cha Cha Real Smooth is currently playing in select theaters. It is currently streaming on AppleTV+.