CHICAGO - Editor's note: This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 26, 2022. It has been expanded and republished in light of the film's premiere in theaters and on Apple TV+.
Don’t be put off by the fact that "Cha Cha Real Smooth" sounds like a movie you’ve seen before. The breakout Sundance romantic dramedy centers on Andrew (writer/director Cooper Raiff), a recent college grad with absolutely no idea what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Petrified by the prospect of "real" adulthood, he moves back in with his family and takes a dead-end job to make ends meet, before eventually striking up a flirtatious relationship with a dazzling woman who will change his life forever. This is a tale as old as time (or at least as old as "The Graduate"), yet Raiff elevates it so gently and empathetically that the well-trod beats somehow feel fresh all over again.
About "Cha Cha Real Smooth": Take it back now, y'all
Much of that springs from Raiff’s unique sensibilities as a filmmaker. Just as he did with his debut feature "S#!%house" (a microbudget walking-and-talking college romance), here Raiff crafts a gorgeously compassionate world anchored by a quietly radical depiction of sensitive 21st century masculinity. Andrew isn’t some icon of 22-year-old entitlement, but a kind, caring person who adores his kid brother David (Evan Assante) and who falls into a job as bar mitzvah party starter because he’s so invested in ensuring other people have a good time. When beguiling 30-something local mom Domino (Dakota Johnson) impulsively admits that she feels completely comfortable around him, you get it. Andrew is the kind of person who’s constantly striving to put others at ease. And the gentle, straightforward connection he forges with Domino’s autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) only serves to bring him into Domino’s world at warp-speed.
Vanessa Burghardt and Dakota Johnson in "Cha Cha Real Smooth," premiering June 17, 2022 on Apple TV+.
Yet for all the likable qualities Raiff shares with this onscreen avatar, he’s also clear-eyed about Andrew’s faults. All that intensely other-focused energy is in many ways a coping mechanism; a way for Andrew to avoid internal self-reflection by constructing his identity through the approval of others. It’s a flaw disguised as a strength, which makes it trickier to spot than bog-standard 20-something self-indulgence. Around the edges of the film, Raiff thoughtfully sketches out how much Andrew’s personality has been shaped by his close relationship with his loving mom Lisa (a pitch-perfect Leslie Mann) — both in emulating her own exuberantly empathetic personality and because her struggles with bipolar disorder forced him to grow up quicker than a lot of his peers.
All of which perhaps makes "Cha Cha Real Smooth" sound a little more serious than it is. This is a funny, gentle crowd-pleaser of a film, filled with offbeat comedic timing and fantastic romantic chemistry between Raiff and Johnson. Where Andrew is an anxious puppy dog of "please like me" energy, Domino is a fascinatingly enigmatic figure; warm and nurturing in some ways, yet closed-off and self-destructive in others. After a crisis throws them together early on, Domino and Andrew spend the rest of the film pushing and pulling like rotating magnets, the power dynamic between them subtly shifting in each scene. Though "Cha Cha Real Smooth" spends more time in Andrew’s point of view, Johnson nevertheless makes Domino feel like a fully three-dimensional person, not just a supporting player on Andrew’s self-actualization journey. (Raiff even credited Johnson as a "ghost director" in an upcoming interview with FOX Television Stations.) The result is one of her most captivating performances to date.
See "Cha Cha Real Smooth" for: Its "kind movie" bonda fides
Like the best entries in the "kind movie" canon, "Cha Cha Real Smooth" crafts a world without the melodramatic conceits of heroes and antagonists. Instead the main conflict here is about perspective and experience. Stuck on the cusp of adulthood, Andrew doesn’t always realize just how limited his viewpoint is — how much higher the stakes can be for people in other stages of their lives. Raiff taps into the uniquely charged bond that can form between someone who idolizes maturity and someone else looking to recapture their youth. But is it healthy for a 20-something to lose themselves in the exuberance of 13-year-olds? Or for a 30-something to upend the life she’s built to chase a potential connection with a 22-year-old?
Cooper Raiff and Evan Assante in "Cha Cha Real Smooth," premiering June 17, 2022 on Apple TV+.
Raiff tackles those questions honestly and openly, while still respecting the power of sheer vibes to bridge all sorts of gaps. Though romantic comedies often thrive on predictability, Raiff finds real tension in the question of what a happily-ever-after might look like here, and the film is all the stronger for it. "Cha Cha Real Smooth" expertly toes the line between earnest sincerity and comedic detachment, and though its small, intimate coming-of-age story isn’t exactly groundbreaking, there’s a certain magic to the way it’s brought to life. Raiff has a knack for writing dialogue that captures how people actually speak (or at least how they might if they were 10 percent more emotionally honest with each other). And he’s not afraid to mix the joyous with the bittersweet in appreciably mature ways.
Wistfully romantic and impossibly charming, "Cha Cha Real Smooth" is a special little movie that somehow feels a warm blanket and a gut-punch all at the same time. "Growing up is hard," one character gently comforts Andrew mid-way through the film. Luckily Raiff makes it look easy.
"Cha Cha Real Smooth" is streaming on Apple TV+ and in select theaters starting June 17. Rated R. 107 minutes. Dir: Cooper Raiff. Featuring: Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burghardt, Leslie Mann, Evan Assante, Brad Garrett,Raúl Castillo.
Make it a double feature with "Beyond the Lights," streaming free on Tubi
Beyond The Lights (2014): This achingly beautiful coming-of-age romance about a pop star named Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is an ode to setting boundaries and not letting anyone control you — even the people who raised you. Themes of creative identity, mental heath, sexism in the music industry, romantic partnership and family pressure take center stage in this hidden gem of a movie from "Love & Basketball" director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Rated PG-13. 116 minutes. Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood. Also featuring Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover.
How to watch "Cha Cha Real Smooth"
"Cha Cha Real Smooth" will be available in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ starting June 17.
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she spent four years lovingly analyzing the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her column When Romance Met Comedy for The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
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