Dakota Johnson in Cooper Raiff’s ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

The writer-director-actor’s sophomore feature pairs him with Dakota Johnson for a maybe/maybe-not love story.

Building on the strengths of his justly celebrated debut, maintaining its distinctive point-of-view while broadening the scope of its sympathy, Cooper Raiff‘s Cha Cha Real Smooth is a more mainstream film than 2020’s Shithouse without feeling the least bit generic. (As with the first film, titles aren’t Raiff’s strong suit.) Dakota Johnson costars with the director as a single mom charmed by the young man’s ability to connect with her autistic child. The attraction quickly goes much deeper than that, creating a potential love story whose complications feel as distilled-from-life as the previous film’s heartbreak and homesickness.

Unlike the first film, this one offers several characters who are sufficiently well drawn we can imagine versions of the story in which each is the protagonist: Leslie Mann, as a mother pained by her son’s tendency to fall headlong in love regardless of his chances; Evan Assante as David, the kid brother who looks up to Raiff’s college grad even when he’s stuck sleeping on a cot in the boy’s bedroom; and Lola (the effortlessly winning newcomer Vanessa Burghardt), the bullied but self-assured daughter the story revolves around. But especially Johnson’s Domino, a character the film accepts as being more complex than our hero, with untidy motivations that needn’t necessarily be explained to his satisfaction.

Cha Cha Real Smooth

The Bottom Line

A confident step in a burgeoning career.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Cooper Raiff, Vanessa Burghardt, Evan Assante, Brad Garrett, Leslie Mann, Raúl Castillo, Odeya Rush

Director-Screenwriter: Cooper Raiff

1 hour 47 minutes

Raiff’s Andrew has just finished college without much of a plan. He hopes he can earn enough money to follow his girlfriend to Barcelona, but working at a hot dog stand in the mall makes that a long shot. An unlikely side hustle materializes when, chaperoning David at a low-energy bat mitzvah party, he winds up convincing the whole room to get on the dance floor and have fun. By the end of the night, Jewish moms are lining up to hire him as a good-times catalyst at their own events.

None of that would’ve been likely had he not spotted two outcasts at the start of the night. Beautiful but unhappy-looking, Domino walked into the room accompanied by mean gossip (somebody whispers she’s the “crazy mom” who screwed somebody else’s husband) and a daughter intent on not mingling. Wearing big headphones and focused on a giant cube puzzle, Lola was definitely not going to be dancing tonight. Until Andrew convinced her to.

If that doesn’t immediately make Andrew Domino’s Prince Charming, a minor emergency at another party demonstrates the depth of his compassion and his ability to improvise. By the end of this evening, Lola has decided Andrew should be her babysitter (she can tell he wouldn’t treat her like a baby), and the two adults have shared enough of themselves that further intimacy seems inevitable. A bittersweet prologue has shown how easily Andrew imagines love connections that don’t exist; but there’s nothing imaginary about the chemistry between these two.

Also not imaginary: Domino’s fiancé Joseph (Raúl Castillo), currently on a work trip to Chicago. But that doesn’t stop the two from spending time together, or keep Andrew from babysitting when Joseph’s back in town. When the men finally meet, Cha Cha is cagey about whether Joseph’s a jerk to be bested, a good match for Domino or something else. Of major characters, only Andrew’s stepfather is viewed in a harsher light. (It’s no coincidence when a film by a young, sensitive man offers the least empathy to older guys unafflicted by self-doubt. But eventually, Cha Cha sees these two as humans as well.)

Andrew’s no saint: When feeling spurned or toyed with by Domino, he’s quick to try hooking up with the hot classmate (Odeya Rush) he longed for in high school. He also hasn’t mastered the art of alcohol consumption: Some drunken and/or overemotional moments allow Raiff to show he has several gears between mild frustration and the full-blown romantic despair of Shithouse. But then, Andrew has much more emotional intelligence than that film’s Alex. As this story develops, he’s going to need it.

If Cha Cha should connect with a large enough number of movielovers to make Raiff an in-demand talent, it’s likely he’ll eventually face some backlash as well. The world can be cruel to nice guys, especially boyishly handsome ones whose talent for connection relies on guilelessness and conspicuous vulnerability. The speed with which he put together such an assured second film suggests Raiff isn’t quite as soft off-screen as on; and the differences between this performance and the last suggest he’ll have some range as an actor as well. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to prove that soon.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Picturestart, TeaTime Pictures
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Cooper Raiff, Vanessa Burghardt, Evan Assante, Brad Garrett, Leslie Mann, Raúl Castillo, Odeya Rush
Director-Screenwriter: Cooper Raiff
Producers: Dakota Johnson, Ro Donnelly, Erik Feig, Jessica Switch, Cooper Raiff
Executive Producers: Jeff Valeri, Shayne Fiske Goldner, Julia Hammer
Director of photography: Cristina Dunlap
Production designer: Celine Diano
Costume designer: Michelle Thompson
Editor: Cooper Raiff, Henry Hayes, Colin Patton
Composers: Este Haim, Chris Stracey
Casting director: Angela Demo
Sales: WME, ICM

1 hour 47 minutes