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Sundance 2022 Review: Cha Cha Real Smooth – “A lovely, delightful crowdpleaser”

Dakota Johnson appears in CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH by Cooper Raiff, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Once upon a time, long ago, when I was in my twenties, there was a movie released called Garden State.  If you haven’t watched it, find it.  To this day, it’s one of my favourite films because it came along at just the right time, where it really captured that moment of your life, where maybe you’re wondering, ‘what’s next?’  It let me know I was not alone in my mind’s wandering and my doubts.  To me, writer-director Cooper Raiff‘s second feature, Cha Cha Real Smooth runs in the same family – a coming of age film for the post-graduate that asks, ‘what do I do now?’ and asks it in the most charming way.

Check out our Sundance Film Festival coverageAndrew (Cooper Raiff) is lost.  Not physically of course, but emotionally.  After graduating from university he has yet to chart a course for his life.  So, he’s back home in New Jersey with his mom (Leslie Mann) and Stepdad, Greg (Brad Garrett), sharing a room with his much younger brother, David (Evan Assante).  Andrew knows that working in the mall’s food court at Meat Sticks isn’t his dream, but he’s having difficulty finding out what his dream truly is.

Accompanying David to a flurry of bar and bat mitzvahs that summer, Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) who happens to be in David’s class.  Andrew, seemingly the most genuinely empathetic 22 year old around, instantly connects with Lola who is on the autism spectrum.  Recognizing this rare circumstance, Domino invites Andrew to spend more time with Lola, a sitter of sorts.  As a hopeless romantic, not just in love but in life, Andrew invests himself and his heart ever deeper as they all spend more time together, and it leaves him questioning if they might just be his future.

With Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff crafts an absolute charmer of a film, an audience pleaser that is bound to do well, not only at Sundance but beyond.  For when was the last time you saw a genuinely nice guy depicted on screen? I don’t mean someone being nice because they’ve got some alternate agenda, just a naturally nice person.  He’s someone who sees the good in everyone, someone who doesn’t only just say nice things but acts on them.  I mean, it’s sad that this is refreshing but it is.  It is truly heartwarming.  In any short-lived moments he’s not perfectly nice it might be because he’s standing up to a bully, or talking to his step-dad Greg.  Even the latter stems from wanting to protect his mom and is still laughable in its attempt at meanness.

Films typically look to some source of conflict to drive their plots, but there’s not often too much conflict that comes from a person being as lovely as Andrew.  Yet, Raiff allows Andrew the privilege of staying true to himself, instead finding that internal conflict that is written and performed so well.  Andrew is the guy you want so badly to root for.  You’re so intensely happy when things go well for him, and emotional when they do not.

Dakota Johnson, also at the festival with Am I OK?, continues to prove herself to be one of the more interesting actors currently out there.  As Domino, she is incredibly nuanced, expressive yet restrained, maternal and caring.  She wants to see Andrew live the life she never really got to have as a young mother and encourages his growth.  Moments between her and Raiff, or those that include newcomer Burghardt, who is simply so endearing, are where the film flourishes.

Cha Cha Real Smooth has a knack for capturing emotional honesty – those intimate, vulnerable moments that become more profound the more you think of them.  It also has a real knack for capturing the awkwardness that is a ‘tween’ dance in a way that brings all that trauma flooding back.  But in all seriousness, Cha Cha Real Smooth is irresistibly sweet without ever becoming saccharine.  It’s a truthful coming-of-age story that will especially connect with those graduates with lingering questions.  It may not have all the answers, but it’s always comforting to see you’re in good company.  For the rest of us, Cha Cha Real Smooth is still a lovely, delightful crowdpleaser that is apt to keep you smiling.  We can all use a few more of those.

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