Review: Cha Cha Real Smooth, On Learning the Dance Steps as You Go

Filmmaker Cooper Raiff (Shithouse) is only 24 years old, yet he's delivered one of the most emotionally mature, fully formed dramas of this year's Sundance Film Festival in Cha Cha Real Smooth, a film both heartwarming and heartbreaking in its honesty and vulnerability. Both writer and director, Raiff also stars here as Andrew, a new college grad who's still pining for his girlfriend at school when he moves home to figure out his next moves. Living with his mom (Leslie Mann), stepdad (Brad Garrett) and younger brother, David (Evan Assante), the charming and chatty Andrew discovers he has a special talent to get a party going when he's conscripted into emceeing at one of his brother's friend's bar mitzvahs. Soon, he's decided he's got enough of a knack for it to make something of a job out of it, getting the party going for teenagers and their families all over town (with ever sillier themes, a real treat).

At one such affair, Andrew meets one of David's classmates, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) and her mother, Domino (Dakota Johnson). Lola is autistic, and Domino attends the bar mitzvahs with her to make sure she socializes, but also to be there ready to leave when Lola's had enough. Andrew and Domino chat briefly, and the chemistry is immediate; these two are drawn to each other, despite the differences in their ages and their circumstances (she is engaged to a man who often travels for work). It helps that Andrew is a natural with Lola, able to relate to her in ways both patient and easy. As he and Domino swirl around each other, him willing to say everything that comes to mind and her keeping everything close to the vest, the two share sweet moments that seem very much like the early stages of a courtship. Knowing they can't be together, as it often does, only seems to make Andrew want it all the more.

Cha Cha Real Smooth refers to one of those corny line dances common at things like wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, but it's also how Andrew is trying to navigate this tumultuous moment in his life, cha-chaing this way and that, trying to get the steps right even though he doesn't know them yet. He's working a dead-end job, sleeping on the floor in his brother's room and in love with a woman who, no matter how much she reciprocates his feelings, isn't available. The chemistry between Raiff and Johnson radiates off screen, and both offer sensitive, thoughtful performances of Raiff's script, one that navigates the many ups and downs of this time of life with far more wisdom than one might expect. At turns funny, silly, sad and poignant, Cha Cha Real Smooth is ultimately a lovely reminder of what it costs to put one's full heart into life, and why it's always worth it to do so.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is now in select theaters and streaming on AppleTV+.

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Lisa Trifone