Writer-director Cooper Raiff casts himself in the starring role of Cha Cha Real Smooth as Andrew, a kind of directionless young dude who discovers a talent for getting the party started. Professionally, he’s a Bar Mitzvah host, which doesn’t seem like a legit career path for a grown man, but Andrew doesn’t seem embarrassed about it, so why should I object?
At one such Bar Mitzvah, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), a hot single mom to daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who’s on the autism spectrum. Andrew, a true romantic at heart, is instantly smitten. He’s a puppy dog chasing a slightly older and definitely more jaded feline. Andrew is such an affable and likable character that he even wins Lola’s approval, a fact which a single mother can’t exactly discount, even if she is, in fact, technically engaged to an oft-absent man. But through her loneliness and depression, Domino comes to let Andrew in, ever cautious, always slowly, forming a friendship that fills a void and ultimately leads to a coming of age moment for all three.
Cooper Raiff has all the makings of an indie darling. His direction isn’t particularly distinctive, but his writing is the film’s main engine anyway. Andrew is so faultlessly kind-hearted, and Raiff’s portrayal so earnest that you might compare the character to Ted Lasso, whose sunny disposition was the breakthrough our cold, dark hearts needed throughout these tumultuous past couple of years. But Raiff, for all his charm, isn’t exactly Jason Sudeikis. Raiff turns it on just a little too much, making the film feel, at times, just too damned twee.
Dakota Johnson, whether you like her or not, is suitably luminous as Domino, and just a little bit broken. The real breakout, however, is Vanessa Burghardt, who manages to link and to ground Domino and Andrew, even as she pursues her own story. Burghardt, who is on the autism spectrum herself, is the character who feels the most real.
Cha Cha Real Smooth, despite its terrible title, won the Audience Award for Drama at this year’s Sundance, and while it wasn’t my favourite, it definitely has its sweet moments, and an undeniable appeal.