Sundance Review: Cha Cha Real Smooth
The breakout hit of the Sundance Film Festival, Cha Cha Real Smooth is triple threat Cooper Raiff’s follow-up to indie darling Shithouse and proof positive that he’s not a one-hit wonder. The film follows a college grad, played by Raiff, as he befriends a young mother (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter (Vanessa Burghardt) when he returns home for the summer.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is only nominally about Andrew, the 22-year-old mitzvah party-starter trying to figure out what comes next. In reality, Raiff’s sophomore effort extends the empathy of his debut film, and in doing so, reflects a preternatural maturity on the part of its creator. This is more than just Andrew’s story. It’s the story of a young mother coming to grips with her lost youth and the sacrifices that come with stability. And a young autistic girl slowly learning to expand her circle of comfort. A young boy figuring out how to behave – with girls and with bullies – on his own, without the advice of his brother. A mother with a new home; a stepdad with a new family; a lawyer whose career and young family get in the way of each other.
In essence, Cha Cha Real Smooth is a coming-of-age tale for all ages. And it is a romantic film about ships passing in the night. For Andrew, Domino, and Lola, the trio at the film’s core, it’s a brilliant encapsulation of those perfect moments in life where paths cross – paths that are coming from and going to different places – and we’re able to give ourselves to one another and learn something valuable, but aren’t able to stay together. Like it or not, our paths keep moving.
Raiff is the core emotional vulnerability at the film’s center, and his wide-eyed performance shouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen Shithouse. But Cha Cha is filled with incredible performances and indelible moments. Leslie Mann is breathtaking as Andrew’s mother – she says so much with so little. Take a late-night meeting in the kitchen. Her son sits on the counter eating cereal. The way her eyes widen and she smiles when he tells her he was with friends – she doesn’t say anything, but she knows he wasn’t with friends. She also knows he’s not ready to talk about it yet. These are constant microscopic decisions being made by Mann, but over the course of the film, they add up to something tremendous – one couldn’t find a more apt metaphor for motherhood.
Dakota Johnson is just as good. Raiff’s heart-on-his-sleeve goofiness is infectious when he’s around her, and Johnson plays Domino perfectly as a woman who never truly got to live her 20s. She doesn’t regret it; but she still misses it. So she whips back and forth between letting Andrew inject her with that youthful spirit of possibility, and turning more wistful and accepting that these feelings are temporary. Her performance is more internalized than Raiff’s, the Yin to his Yang. Their chemistry – more on a human level than a romantic one – is palpable. And Vanessa Burghardt is spectacular in her debut screen role, opening up slowly around Andrew in a way that’s so natural that I guarantee it will remind you of your own junior high school days.
As a director, Raiff’s style is to get out of the way of his writing and his actors – and it’s calibrated to a tee. The dialogue is refreshingly awkward-cum-wise. So many lines contain brilliant kernels of truth, delivered in the stilted, hushed way that reflects real conversation; they don’t feel written. A wonderfully meandering but piercing theory on soul mates feels like it might have been crafted in the moment, and Cooper knows enough to punctuate it with a moment of levity, his camera lingering on the empty space where the conversation took place rather than following the action of the comedy. We laugh, but we keep thinking about what was said. This is great, unshowy direction.
I’ve seen Cha Cha Real Smooth twice – and I almost watched it a third time, if only because of the terrifying knowledge that I might not get to see it again until Apple releases it (date TBD). It’s eminently rewatchable, unfurling new discoveries and grace notes with each viewing. It had serious competition, but it’s my favorite movie from Sundance.