One of my big regrets from this year’s Sundance Film Festival was missing out on “Cha Cha Real Smooth”. When sorting out my schedule, it wasn’t a movie that initially caught my eye. But after hearing the overwhelming excitement from fellow Sundancers I knew I had missed out. Apple quickly scooped up the film, and after a limited theater run, “Cha Cha” is now available to stream on Apple TV+.
It turns out “Cha Cha” earns the buzz. The light and easy dramedy teases conventionality but slyly maintains a freshness that keeps the story and characters from coming across as overly familiar. It very much feels like a movie of this era, yet it open-arm embraces several tried-and-true movie staples which is sure to give it credibility with the independent cinema scene. That may sound like a slight, but it isn’t meant to be. In fact, the movie’s fresh flavor mixed with its traditional indie movie vibe is a big part of what makes it work.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is directed, written, produced, and co-edited by Cooper Raiff. He also stars as the film’s quintessential indie lead character. Raiff plays Andrew, 22-years-old and fresh out of college. As a character, Andrew is an interesting collage of traits. He’s a bit of a slacker and a touch selfish yet genuinely kind under the surface. He’s not lacking in self-confidence, despite still living at home with his mother (a really good Leslie Mann), step-father (Brad Garrett), and 12-year-old kid brother David (Evan Assante).
Andrew wants to work for a fancy non-profit, but his flighty lack of direction keeps him from putting in the effort. Instead he’s absorbed in thoughts of going to Barcelona where his college girlfriend is doing her Fulbright. It leaves him stuck working a go-nowhere job at a fast-food joint called “Meat Sticks” and serving as a part-time Bar Mitzvah party starter.
The movie gets going in earnest after Andrew meets a young mother named Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic teenage daughter, Lola (newcomer Vanessa Burghardt). Despite their age difference, Andrew and Domino develop an interesting relationship. Johnson is terrific playing yet another ambivalent and hard-to-read single mom with an enchanting aura of beauty surrounding a near impenetrable exterior. Domino is a devoted mother and is hesitant to put herself in any position that might compromise her first and most important calling. But there’s also a sorrow in her eyes – a sorrow that seems to vanish whenever Andrew is around.
This may sound like a pretty obvious rom-com recipe but Raiff has more on his mind. While he never goes as deep as he could have, he also doesn’t let his movie turn into a corny cringe-fest. That’s because his characters all feel natural and more akin to real life rather than the pages of some script. And the relationship between Andrew and Domino has more layers than you might expect. There’s clearly a connection between them and a strong undercurrent of passion. But it’s a classic case of “should they or shouldn’t they”. And despite their simmering mutual attraction, neither seem confident in what they really want. And things get even more complicated once Domino’s fiancé (Raúl Castillo) eases into the picture.
I also loved how Raiff handles the relationship between Andrew and Lola, both on screen and off. It’s more than just a means of bringing the two adults together. It’s more than a young man’s chance to get in with a concerned and protective mom. Andrew often uses his “good guy” persona like a shrewd vendor pushing his wares. But his sincerity and kindness really comes out in his scenes with Lola. And Burghardt as terrific, bringing empathy and an authenticity to both her character and the film as a whole.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” does a good job exploring the realities of growing up and what it means to discover one’s own direction in life. Along the way, Raiff shows keen instincts both as a filmmaker and a screenwriter, anchoring his story on familiar ground, but never letting it fall into the usual traps. And though it wears a little thin in the second half, there’s a certain messiness to these characters that I like and the film’s willingness to let them be flawed pays off in a big way. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is streaming now on AppleTV+.