Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes
Director: Cooper Raiff
Writer: Cooper Raiff
Starring: Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burghardt, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, and Raúl Castillo
By Valerie Kalfrin
The winsome coming-of-age drama “Cha Cha Real Smooth” glides and twirls through the uncertainty of one postgraduate’s life in sweet and surprising ways.
Shown at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival (and coming to Apple TV+ in June after scoring a $15 million distribution deal at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival), the film is a delicate and endearing story about a young man who wears his heart on his sleeve—and the older woman he inspires.
I have to admit, the film’s logline—about a young man who works as a party host striking up a friendship with a mother and her autistic daughter—made me wonder if I was in for yet another tale of a young man curing his ennui after meeting a manic pixie dream girl. But filmmaker Cooper Raiff, who stars here as well as writes and directs, avoids that predictability. In fact, it’s not until later that his aimless graduate Andrew realizes he’s been the somewhat magical one in this friendship, spurring the mom through her own uncertainties.
Andrew has a degree in marketing but little clue what to do with his life, now that his college girlfriend is in Barcelona on a Fulbright scholarship. Accompanying his younger brother, David (Evan Assante), to a classmate’s bar mitzvah, Andrew meets the thirtysomething Domino (Dakota Johnson, “The Lost Daughter”), and her daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who is a little older and taller than the other kids in their grade.
When the DJ’s selections leave the dance floor empty, the effortlessly charming Andrew gets the party started by asking about the classmates’ favorites—and gets Lola out on the dance floor too. The other parents swiftly hire him as the “party starter” at their children’s upcoming bar and bat mitzvahs, a rite of passage that Andrew finds touching even as he struggles with adulthood.
Meanwhile, he also impresses Domino enough that she asks him to babysit Lola. Soon he and Domino have flirty heart-to-hearts over freeze pops at the kitchen island, even though she has a fiancé, Joseph (Raúl Castillo, “Army of the Dead”), a traveling attorney.
A lesser film would have a full-on fling between Domino and Andrew, but Raiff has something more subtle in mind. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” revels in long takes and closeups, enjoying its characters’ company and quiet spaces.
Andrew can be a wiseguy, but he’s generally guileless and treats others with empathy, a quality the film extends to its characters, granting them respect and grace. Johnson, one of the film’s co-producers, has the trickier role but infuses Domino with complexity, regrets, and honest confusion. She loves being around Andrew because at 22, he’s all possibilities; yet she also wants him to enjoy that to the fullest. Burghardt, who is on the autism spectrum and makes her film debut here, shows Lola forming a genuine bond with Andrew because he doesn’t baby her.
Leslie Mann (“Motherless Brooklyn”) is sweet and engaging as Andrew and David’s mother, who has her own mental health issues and wholehearted support for her boys. She’s remarried to Greg (Brad Garrett, TV’s “Fargo”), an awkward exec about ten years her senior whom Andrew teases mercilessly until he realizes the man’s inherent decency. Even Castillo gives Joseph maturity and understanding.
A sophomore effort from Raitt, whose 2020 SXSW film won a grand jury award, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a low-key delight brimming with sincere emotion. It captures the ambivalence of the postgrad days with humor and nuance as it explores the different types of love in life and how we can have many soulmates.