Writer/director Cooper Raiff’s sophomore film CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH is a very special movie, with all of the makings to sweep up the awards at Sundance this year. The film is a heartfelt, romantic dramedy that focuses on self-growth, learning how to love, and celebrating differences. And more than that, it is really, really charming. Raiff wears his heart on his sleeve not only in the film’s phenomenal script, but also in his memorable lead performance. This kind of earnest sentimentality rarely works on-screen, but not only does it work in CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH, it is the element that makes it great.
22-year-old Andrew (Raiff) is fresh out of college and living with his mom (Leslie Mann) as he tries to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. While his friends are starting to make big life decisions, like moving to Barcelona, Andrew is stuck working at a fast food restaurant called Meat Sticks. One night, Andrew takes his little brother to a bat mitzvah and takes it upon himself to get the party started. He befriends Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), betting he can get Lola on the dance floor despite her mother’s skepticism.
Everyone is complimentary of Andrew’s extroversion (and dance moves), which encourages him to make a business as a professional “party starter.” As part of that gig, he sees Domino and her daughter on the bar and bat mitzvah circuit and begins to strike up a sweet, sensitive friendship with Lola and develops a crush on Domino. But, of course, things aren’t ever that easy… especially for a 22-year-old who has always loved with his whole heart and still has a bit of growing up to do.
It’s hard to believe Raiff is only 23 years old, because if this is his “early work”, I can’t imagine what he has in store for the rest of his career. Raiff’s script is incredibly authentic and emotionally vulnerable, providing strong material for such a talented acting ensemble. The conversations seem so realistic, giving the film an almost improvisational quality. And the man is just so freaking likable and charismatic as Andrew. Is there anything he can’t do? Raiff also makes music an extremely important element of the film, not only in the dance party scenes, but also in the film’s amazing score, which was written by Este Haim and Chris Stracey.
I am an unapologetic Dakota Johnson fan and prioritized CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH on my schedule primarily because she is in it. And to no one’s surprise, she is enchanting and absolute perfection as the mysterious, hard-to-read Domino. Johnson’s ability to convey a level of sincerity and relatability is the most critical element for making this film work. As an audience, you have to fall in love with her and her situation just like Andrew. It says a lot that she can make such a deep, multi-layered performance seem so completely effortless and authentic.
As a fan, I respect and appreciate the way Dakota puts her time and money where her mouth is, choosing to make films that bring a voice to people with differences, including the special needs community, first in PEANUT BUTTER FALCON and now in CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH. This film is also one of the first movies Dakota has produced through her company Tea Time Pictures, and I expect there will be more thoughtful, representative films to come.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH is a film that is super easy to recommend because I will be shocked if anyone has an experience other than grinning from ear to ear… well, when you’re not tearing up from the film’s sincerity and charm. Raiff absolutely hits it out of the park, and I can’t wait for it to be released so I can add it to my list of films to recommend whenever I am asked.
My Review: A
**All pictures in this post are courtesy of the Sundance Institute**