This review originally ran as part of Paste’s Sundance 2022 coverage.
Every once in a while you meet someone who’s truly just some guy, with no discernibly extraordinary qualities, for whom things seem to work out based on charisma alone. In writer-director-star Cooper Raiff’s friendly sophomore feature Cha Cha Real Smooth, that guy happens to be Andrew (Raiff), a charming and disarming recent Tulane graduate whose sole motivation is to make enough money to join his Fulbright scholar girlfriend in Barcelona. Unfortunately, the only job he can grab is as a minimum wage cashier at an unforgivingly named food court stand in his hometown (Meat Sticks for the Miscellaneous Sundance Audience Award!) while he crashes in his little brother’s room, fights with his pragmatist stepdad (Brad Garrett), and attempts to convince his mom (Leslie Mann) that she has the wrong taste in men and he has the right taste in women.
Into this meandering existence stumble the opportunities of his lifetime thus far. While escorting his brother, David (the cute-as-a-button Evan Assante), to a bar mitzvah bash, Andrew takes it upon himself to spice up the floundering dance floor, and to make friends with the resident rumored bad mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her autistic daughter, Lola (natural newcomer Vanessa Burghardt). He succeeds wildly at both, getting hired by a mob of Jewish moms as a party starter for their childrens’ b’nai mitzvot, and securing Domino’s affection in the process. In this indie, as with many before it, nothing is more attractive to a hot mom than a goofy, unfiltered young man-child who treats her own child like royalty. Also in this indie, as with many before it, Judaism is used as a backdrop and as texture, but isn’t engaged with on any level beyond its visual symbolism. (At one point, both Andrew and Domino bemoan that they’re not Jewish.)
The flirtationship Domino and Andrew fall into is by all means a terrible idea, but the film has to work against its casting to convince us of that. Andrew feels too self-assured and Domino too acceptably within Andrew’s age range to be all that illicit. However, though Domino is devoted to her daughter and to the stability that her often absent fiancé Joseph (a gruff Raúl Castillo) provides, she’s attracted to Andrew’s youth and possibility—the kind she lost at an early age when keeping an entire other person alive became her number one priority. Domino is frightened of the certainty she craves, and Andrew hasn’t yet learned to value the sacrifices others make for loved ones. It’s a perfectly ill-advised match, with the most unbelievable choice being made on the understanding that Andrew is a genuinely good guy and wouldn’t sleep with Domino even if she straddled him and kissed him, no sirree.
Domino and Andrew’s ships in the night (or glowsticks on an installable dance floor) routine does have its moments of introspection, mostly because Andrew is an observant guy when he wants to be and Domino is a thoughtful character who takes the time to investigate her own feelings. They’re fun to watch together as they continue testing their own internal limits, with an always magnetic Johnson’s reserved style working well in this conflicted role. However, some of the most enjoyable moments of the film come from Raiff’s sly comedic timing, mostly in the moments that he’s entirely alone, kicking the grass or failing to do a push up or whittling his time away at Meat Sticks.
It’s not hard to see why Andrew would make a good first impression on kids and adults alike (barring one awful job interview that inexplicably doesn’t result in his being on the no-call list for life), but Raiff also lets himself be ugly. He’s surly and confrontational to his stepfather for no real reason, he’s insecure and envious, he gets in fights with people who deserve it and with little brothers just asking for advice. But he apologizes, and the bar is low enough in this genre that a simple apology from a charming misfit guy could get him all the forgiveness anyone has to offer. Unfortunately his acknowledging of his fuck-ups doesn’t erase the hurt that he’s done (as with Lola and David), but everyone is able to move on with their lives.
Maybe that’s the basic gist of the film’s merit: in this type of film, Andrew is a king among men. He’s smart, genuinely funny, believably floundering in an economy that is in no way designed to support a recent graduate, and when he realizes he’s screwed up, he’s contrite. Getting the girl is a myth replaced with getting the nonprofit position, and Domino isn’t abandoned by the film’s plot—something of a rarity. We should all have the opportunity to find ourselves with as much grace afforded to us. We don’t, and more of us find ourselves in the shoes of Domino, or Lola, or Andrew’s mom’s than in Andrew’s, living with real-world consequences based on how others perceive us. But for the runtime of Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff’s clever script, affable characters and naturalistic direction makes it painless enough to sympathize with someone who can’t moonwalk, but will nevertheless skate on by.
Director: Cooper Raiff
Writer: Cooper Raiff
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Cooper Raiff, Vanessa Burghardt, Evan Assante, Brad Garrett, Leslie Mann
Release Date: January 23, 2022 (Sundance)
Shayna Maci Warner (@bernieteeters) is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.