Some movies aren’t what you think but end up being exactly what you need. They are promoted as a familiar brand of entertainment, one that will guarantee either butts in seats or clicks on the streaming service, but they hit so differently after you are finished watching. Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth” fits into that category of approaching quietly, but striking deep.
Fact: It could have been another routine edition of “routine-feeling yet watchable” coming of age, post-college riff, tales with just enough blunt humor and casual romantic activity happening.
Fact: I am so glad it didn’t settle for that finish line, easier to find and attain than saying something vital about a few timely issues that most put off as too complex to explore properly.
Raiff directed, produced, and wrote the movie–in addition to starring in the lead role of Andrew. He’s the “just graduated from college yet is still aimless” refugee, who also happens to be a hopeless romantic as well. The audience gets to experience that first hand early on in the film, where a 12-year-old Andrew makes a sweet play for the attention of a party-starter at a bar mitzvah. When he is turned down, all he can do is be swallowed up in the embrace of his mother (wonderfully played by Leslie Mann) on a dark, sad ride home.
Taking a note from his very first crush, Andrew gets into party-starting himself after attending an anti-lit and quite boring bat mitzvah, one that was in big need of a soul who could get the young and the old on the dance floor, blasting their lungs and banging their asses to the beat of familiar tunes. It’s this newfound profession that connects our young protagonist with Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her young teenage daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). The movie may take off in familiar fashion, folks, but it doesn’t fly over a treaded path.
In a normal movie, no matter the circumstances, the screenplay would jostle Andrew and Domino to and away from each other for the next ninety or so minutes. But make no mistake, they will be together in the end. Here, it’s treated as the exact sort of complication life throws at you when a romantic possibility-along with the bonding with a young teen-comes across your path. In this tale, Domino is engaged to Joseph (Raul Castillo), a very busy lawyer who often isn’t in town. The great and also sad thing about feeling those heartstrings get pulled on is the sudden danger it can bring to another family.
That’s the first thing that Raiff’s script deftly handles. Here, Joe isn’t an asshole who really doesn’t love Domino, and she isn’t some damsel in need of a rescue. You aren’t really cheering for either side to win, only for the smallest amount of hearts to be smashed in the end. But there’s a genuine attraction between Raiff’s energetic yet vulnerable Andrew and Johnson’s beautiful yet perceptive Domino. In her, he sees someone who, like him, doesn’t prefer to look at life as a straight line from A to B and then you’re dead. She sees “possibility” in him, the earnest desire to connect with someone new and younger.
But the second thing is how smooth Raiff’s movie is with a couple timely yet delicate plot threads. One is a scene where Domino discusses depression with a curious Andrew, breaking down the affliction as something that makes you keep doing what is not good for you, only shading the real needs that would make everything better. Usually, depression is handled very quickly or overzealously in film, leading to a disconnect between the filmmaker and the audience. “Cha Cha” goes in the other direction and attacks it literally, with both empathy and thoughtfulness instead of just one. The talk between the two characters comes back in the movie’s third act, recalling a potent moment of dialogue.
The second thread handled with supreme care here is autism, and how friendships are formed there and the difficulties that surround new relationships. Burghardt’s Lola, Domino’s daughter in the movie, is autistic and therefore doesn’t have too many friends at school, where she is bullied. She finds a safe haven in Andrew, but it’s not immediate or just completely formulaic. Their friendship is light and patient, and the script just knocks that subplot out of the park.
There’s not a lot of bad or overly critical things to say about a movie that has a message and entertains. It has a lot going on, but every character is flashed out wonderfully. Andrew’s stepdad is played by Brad Garrett, who just kills any small role with his own style that fits both comedy and drama. This is Mann’s best work yet, because it doesn’t just ask her to be hysterical or funny. She can do that in her sleep, but it’s what her mother has with Andrew-that deeply rooted mom/son connection-that allows her to extend more than usual.
Castillo breathes humility into Joseph, a part that could have gone twelve other ways in more generic scripts. What you think will eventually happen between Andrew and Joseph doesn’t, and it’s for great measure. The bond between Raiff and Evan Assante as brothers who discuss anything and everything is well-played and sincere, instead of just begging for the audience’s love.
But it’s Johnson who just steals this film. It’s Domino who is endlessly interesting, surprising, and maturely written–and the actress just runs with the role. Maturing more and more into her mother, Melanie Griffith, on screen looks very good on Johnson-but I expect Dakota to do even better than her mom. What she gives Domino in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a multi-faceted personality that starts with a disarming stare and ends with her looking into Andrew’s eyes and finding trust.
But it’s her bout with depression, and her resourcefulness in raising Lola, that brings out so much extra range in the actress. It’s not what you expect, yet exists as everything the movie needs. Raiff’s everyman spins on her finger from the moment they meet, creating a complication and arena of intrigue around their interactions. In order for that to sing, you need a certain kind of actress. Since her career-boosting supporting role in “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and subsequent challenging choices since, Johnson has skin in the game here and not just her own on screen.
She’s a producer on “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” and it feels like her kind of movie–one that can be worthy of repeated viewership and create the urgent need to tell every soul you know about it. If 2022 has a first placeholder at the moment, it’s this movie.
It takes a familiar-looking setup, empowers it with versatile story threads and superb acting, and makes the ending count. It hits hard, working off a kickass soundtrack and a showcasing of honest human relationships. Bravo, Mr. Raiff.
Photo credit and where you can screen this beauty: Apple TV Plus.