‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’- Sundance Film Festival Review

Updated on 6/17/2022

Cha Cha Real Smooth was added to my watch list for Sundance at the last minute after the recent strong word of mouth. It quickly became one of my most anticipated watches since I’m usually a sucker for a great coming-of-age story to gravitate towards. But this is director, writer, and star Cooper Raiff’s second indie feature following the critically acclaimed Shithouse (or Freshman Year in other territories), which started him and Dylan Gelula. Though that’s a small dramedy the public probably hasn’t heard of and I haven’t seen it myself, his latest will, without a doubt, make the 25-year-old filmmaker a recognizable name in the industry now, hopefully.

What’s the Story: Fresh out of college, 22-year-old Andrew (Raiff) doesn’t have a clear plan on what life has in store for him once he graduated. He’s back home in Livingston, New Jersey, living with his parents (Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett) and his younger brother, David (Evan Assante), and instead of going to Barcelona with his girlfriend, he’s working at a tedious fast-food job at Meat Sticks. However, after taking his brother to one of many bat mitzvahs, he gets a bit of success once Andrew starts a side gig as the guy who gets the party started at the Jewish celebrations known as the “party starter.” On that night, he meets a young mother named Domino (Dakota Johnson), who’s attending the dance with her autistic teenage daughter Lola (newcomer Vanessa Burghardt), thus striking a friendship with both of them and having him figure out what comes next for the future.

There’s always that one Sundance film that stands out just by how it can be lighthearted that you can’t wait for everyone else to share the love with, which is why I have a feeling Cha Cha Real Smooth will be remembered the best out of everything I’ve seen this past week. Since I’m not familiar with his previous film’s plot other than the fact that it took place in college, it’s safe to assume that this will continue the theme of finding yourself in your twenties while feeling authentically genuine in every scene, creating a blend that reminded me of Eighth Grade and The King of Staten Island. As someone who’s been out of college for two years now and in his mid-20s, I understand Andrew’s mind entirely in wanting to be better at starting a party for himself, not having a living situation with parents, or still searching for the right career to hold over a couple of years. However, even I’m constantly questioning if I’m good enough for what I’m doing right now. Everybody goes through the same thing, except I always feel less than good when everyone is off with a dream job, a home, or being engaged or married around my age. Raiff understands how we’re all feeling right now, and this must’ve been on his mind as well, allowing him to make it more acceptable to sit through. Even right now, the search for what makes us happy is right there.

Those who think this is an improvement will point to everything from showing he’s more skilled behind the camera and more calm this time, but I was more impressed with Raiff’s acting as Andrew. Throughout this, I saw Andrew authentically chilled and carrying a sense of humor that made it easy to root for him. This is a character I’d like to be friends with because he has this annoying, awkward charm about him, and it’s easy to root for him to find some happiness within his family and those around him, proving he’s capable of playing the lead in more roles in the future. From the start of the film, it’s clear that he has a lot of heart, as he falls in love with a woman twice his age- the party starter at a classmate’s bar mitzvah. It was that rejection that broke his heart, and we’ve all been there, right?

He’s even better when sharing the screen with Dakota Johnson as Domino. I have not seen her other film, Am I Ok?, since both screenings were sold out, unfortunately. My respect for her has officially grown more than ever since she gives the best performance I’ve seen from here in a few years. Why is that now? She’s bought easily as this full-time parent taking care of her child while at a place currently processing this stage of life, and this unexpected bonding with Andrew makes her come out of her skin a bit. Nothing comes across as fake with their chemistry that doesn’t focus too heavily on the predictable “will they or won’t they” aspect. And with no acting credits under her name, Vanessa Burghardt’s (who’s autistic in real-life) natural presence with her role of Lola was great, especially when she has to any moment with Raiff when they spent time together while he’s babysitting. Just the bonding Andrew and Lola share was generally heartwarming, and I cared so much about them. Leslie Mann in the supporting role as Andrew’s bipolar mom is probably the best thing she’s been in a while, and as an Everybody Loves Raymond fan, it’s nice to see Brad Garrett in anything as his step-dad.

I wouldn’t mind watching more of these characters through the runtime because the script has them be pretty poignant when it calls for a scene to be heartbreaking or comedic that was handled better than I expected. We’re seeing Andrew and Domino when it’s complicated to figure out what’s next in their age. Since I thought it would be straightlaced, it hits with the laughs, but it’ll have you tear up once or twice. I couldn’t relate to anything more than trying to do pushups in terms of laughs. And it’s kind of funny seeing how Andrew is around Bar/ Bat Mitzvahs and how it’s a rite of passage to get older. But in honesty, who doesn’t love following around a likable character in a series or movie? So while the story is pretty familiar and offers minimal stakes than usual, that doesn’t take away the enjoyment when it didn’t need to go unconventionally.

I also have to mention the music by Este Haim and Chris Stracey for capturing that melancholic electronic sound through its quiet moments. Months after its premiere, it wasn’t shocking the winner of the Audience Award for the U.S. Dramatic Competition has gotten strong word of mouth online. During its time at Sundance in January, it was reported that Apple TV+ bought the rights for $15 million, and that was one of my initial choices. So, it makes sense for them to release one of the best films I’ve watched so far in 2022. Does it have a chance to be a serious awards contender? Most likely not, though I won’t be surprised since CODA won three Oscars in the last few months, including Best Picture. If you’re looking for a new film to stream this month, this is one worth your time.

Overall, I loved Cha Cha Real Smooth. Safe to say, Cooper Raiff’s sophomore effort knows how to be the sweet, funny, and relatable coming-of-age film everyone must-see. And much like the main character, it’s completely charismatic. Everything about this felt genuine, and it helps when I could’ve watched more of him and Johnson together, honestly. I can’t wait to re-watch this whenever it gets a release date.

Grade: [A-]

Cha Cha Real Smooth starts streaming on June 17, 2022, only on Apple TV+. Runtime: 107 Minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual content. Studio: Apple TV+.

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