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TV/Film Reviews

Film Review: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ (dir. Cooper Raiff) Sundance | 2022

I love Cooper Raiff. I love Dakota Johnson. This is a sincere, vulnerable, honest, thoughtful movie that captures exactly how it feels to be a young adult trying to figure out the world. A story so specific yet so universal.

Cha Cha Real Smooth
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Director: Cooper Raiff
Cast: Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burghardt,Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Raul Castillo
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
Distributor: Apple Original Films / Apple TV+
Release date: TBA

I love Cooper Raiff. I love Dakota Johnson. This is a sincere, vulnerable, honest, thoughtful movie that captures exactly how it feels to be a young adult trying to figure out the world. Cha Cha Real Smooth is a story so specific yet so universal.

Cha Cha Real Smooth follows the immense success of his directorial debut with Shithouse, and Cooper Raiff has quickly proven that he is a talented individual to keep an eye on. Here, he’s pulling triple duty as writer-director-actor, and he excels at every single role.

Reading the synopsis for this might make it seem like just another movie. There is a guy who works as a party host for bar mitzvahs, and he builds a relationship with a young woman (who is older than him) and her teen daughter. But, throw in Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson, and that basic premise is lifted entirely.

This was probably one of the most relevant and timely movies I’ve seen lately. I mean, there was a TikTok-themed birthday party, and it didn’t even feel gimmicky. It’s that kind of modern-day unconventionality that drew me into it. (Also, Dakota Johnson’s character’s name is Domino, which I absolutely loved for some reason).

When you turn eighteen, you don’t earn the keys to life, and this movie is proof of that. We’re always searching for contentment, a constant idea that is developed throughout this film. It can be a directionless, aimless feeling that might seem indescribable, but Cooper Raiff captures it here.

There’s an innocence to this movie, where even though I disagree with some of the choices these characters are making, I can’t help but feel enveloped in the situation and craving more. 

While Shithouse felt much more intimate and closed-off from the rest of the world given its college campus setting, Cha Cha Real Smooth truly broadens the scope of the world and gives Raiff more ground to cover.

Some of the ideas going on here about romance are brushed over in such sweet, sensitive ways where other films might not pay them any mind. There is so much going on beneath the surface, particularly with Dakota Johnson’s character, and seeing how Cooper Raiff and his character navigate that tricky territory is truly something special.

“Crowd-pleasing” is one of those words that critics often associate with negatively, but in this case, Cha Cha Real Smooth is honestly a people-pleasing good time. You’ll be left with a smile on your face and left to consider some of the topics about love that just got tossed your way. Since having screened this film, it won the Audience Award as part of Sundance’s US Dramatic Competition, to the surprise of nobody.

Not to be brutal (you’ll get the reference when you see the film), but I do wish that this showed us a little bit more about Dakota Johnson’s character’s life. There were a few times that I just wanted the curtain pulled back just a little more, but it left a lot to the imagination when I could have used some more insight.

Andrew, played by Cooper Raiff, shows that it’s aright for a guy to appear sensitive. That is an idea that many movies gloss over, with their main men looking macho and stereotypically masculine. This kind of care is shown off when Andrew is talking to his younger brother and when he helps Domino with her struggles.

Dakota Johnson’s character Domino puts on this facade of exterior perfection, but as the movie progresses, we see what’s really going on underneath. Behind closed doors, there’s much more going on (which I don’t want to even remotely spoil, obviously), and seeing how she interacts with Cooper Raiff’s character was incredible.

Raiff really knows how to handle the essence of being human, and with that comes a lot of chances to mess that up. One area where he truly succeeds here is with the inclusion of an autistic teen girl named Lola, played by Vanessa Burghardt. She is an autistic actor playing an autistic character, but Raiff allows her to be so much more than just a token disabled character. She’s a fully realized human being, as she would be in the real world, and that gave her the opportunity to steal some of my favorite scenes in the film. It’s sad that this kind of thing is so noticeable, but it was something I admired that is a testament to Raiff’s hard work as a storyteller and director.

Boasting an exceptional supporting cast — Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Raul Castillo, Odeya Rush, in addition to lead talent Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, and Vanessa Burghardt — everyone really gets a chance to have their own special moments.

Simultaneously indie but polished, it’s a combination not often achieved. With a low-key method of storytelling but inflections where the budget is evident, Cha Cha Real Smooth has enough heart to go around. Apparently so, because Apple bought the rights to distribute the movie worldwide for $15 million.

Cha Cha Real Smooth screened during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It will be distributed by Apple Original Films with a release date on Apple TV+ TBA.

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