There’s always *that* Sundance film each year that comes out the festival the most triumphant one way or another, whether it be from the awards it won or the stars it has within it or the amount of money a distributor was willing to pay for it as it made the rounds. Last year, Oscar-favorite CODA swept through not only winning the Grand Jury, U.S. Dramatic Audience, Special Jury Ensemble Cast, and Best Director Awards, but also setting a festival record with newcomer Apple Original Films picking it up for a whopping $25 million. This year, while not winning as many awards, 25-year-old writer/producer/director/star Cooper Raiff’s sophomore feature Cha Cha Real Smooth took home the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, and in a parallel series of events, was also acquired by Apple Original Films in an annual high bid for $15 million. While it’s hard to call Apple a “startup” by any means, their commitment to releasing crowd-pleasing indie dramas is remaining admirable in a world full of quantity-over-quality content. Similarly, despite some conventionality to the affair, much like CODA, Cha Cha Real Smooth has just too much charm to dismiss it for its more “crowd pleasing” tropes.
Andrew (Cooper Raiff) is a directionless college graduate returning home to his mother’s (Leslie Mann) home after graduation, working a dead end food service job, and recently suffering heartbreak at the hands of his college girlfriend who moved to Spain. When he inadvertently stumbles upon a successful gig as a Bar/Bat mitzvah party starter after attending a ceremony with his younger brother, David (Evan Assante), he strikes up a relationship with regular party attender Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Entangled with a romance with an engaged woman, becoming close friends with her daughter, and struggling to adapt to a post-academic world where success was all but promised to him, Andrew must fight to keep his head above water in a world he does not recognize anymore.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is one of the more genuine millennial/gen-z stories to come about because it’s really one of the first major films to actually be written and directed by someone actually within that age group (Raiff is actually younger than me, which is a first for me watching a major film, and is messing with my head more than it should). The difference here is there is an understanding of the struggles that an inhospitable world beyond college holds for people our age, and it doesn’t look to merely beat you over the head with pop culture references to prove how “hip” and “with it” the script is. It makes me very excited for the prospect of the next generation of filmmakers finally getting to tell stories in an authentic way, not merely trying to relate to the trendy crowds.
Raiff gives a perfect amount of “little shit” energy in the lead role here, something that does very much so suit the charismatic, but sometimes frustratingly short nature of the character. I’m not always a fan of filmmakers inserting themselves into their own films, particularly in the lead roles, but I can respect the understanding and self-awareness of the autobiographical nature of this screenplay. It’s Johnson and Burghardt who steal the show of Cha Cha Real Smooth, however, something I think Raiff was acutely aware of while acting with both of them in their respective scenes. He gives them a good amount to work with to build chemistry, but lets them really shine and do their own things with their admittedly more interesting characters. Burghardt especially establishes herself as a name to watch for as her performance as the shy, but very warm Lola really touched my heart in a way that could’ve been very manipulative but rather contained a depth and tenderness I greatly respected.
There are moments in the film, though, that feel particularly underdeveloped in the grand scheme of the entire plot. Andrew’s mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder feels like a relatively abandoned subplot that could’ve provided the film with a lot more emotional stakes beyond just Andrew’s struggles; the same can be said for Domino’s struggle with an early film miscarriage that is really never mentioned again beyond her character’s opening scene. Many very interesting plot points are often left unresolved in lieu of Andrew’s more personal struggles, which soon lead to the latter half of the film feeling rather sluggish and conventional in comparison. It’s a shame, too, given how much more distinctive the narrative voice of the film could’ve been with this sort of added depth and restructuring.
Don’t let that dissuade you, though, Cha Cha Real Smooth, despite its occasional shortcomings, is a film that’s genuinely kind of impossible to dislike. It has a metric ton of charm, and the chemistry that Raiff has with his very capable supporting cast makes it a joy to watch in its finer moments. It delves into conventionality a bit too much at points, particularly when the more interesting deviations from that pitfall feel right under the audience’s noses, but there’s no doubt that even without that, Raiff has crafted a seriously sweet and very emotional crowd-pleaser here (I am not using “crowd-pleaser” as a derogatory term like it’s often thrown around as, as I am a part of said pleased crowd). Raiff, in his second feature, quickly establishes himself as one of the first major filmmakers of his generation to make it to the masses, and as someone from the same generation who has been waiting for one to appear, that’s exciting to see.
Available for streaming on Apple TV+ June 17th, 2022.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Friday, March 18th, Screening @ 7:30p CT, Paramount Theatre
*Saturday, March 19th, Online Screening @ 9a CT
For more information, head to the official SXSW webpage.
Final score: 3.5 out of 5.