Film review: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ has the makings of an indie film hit

Cooper Raiff directs, writes and stars in the tale of a rudderless graduate


Cooper Raiff could be the new Woody Allen, if you strip away all of the awful stuff associated with Allen and his alleged inappropriate romantic involvements with younger girls.

Raiff has a clear talent. He writes, directs and stars in his movies, just like Allen. And his movies, like Allen’s, deal with romantic foibles set within the culture of Judaism in the northeast. Unlike Allen, Raiff is tall and good-looking, with a big, toothy smile. And there’s another big difference: He keeps falling for older women in his new movie, “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”

Raiff’s character, Andrew, is introduced to viewers when he’s only 12 years old. The pre-teen boy decides that he has fallen in love with an older woman at a party — and that she has fallen in love with him. He solemnly informs his mother (Leslie Mann) of this development, and she tries to bring him back down to earth. But little Andrew meets his love outside, at her car, and makes his feelings known. She says she’s flattered but too old for him, and he is crushed.

On the way home from the party, Andrew is in the backseat of his parents’ car, and he’s a crumbling, emotional mess. It breaks his mother’s heart.

Fast forward 10 years and Andrew is 22 and a recent graduate of Tulane, living with his parents and his little brother in a suburban New Jersey home. He doesn’t appear to have worked out his romantic problems. His latest girl friend is moving away to Barcelona on a Fulbright scholarship. He has a casual sexual relationship with a high school friend. But he has no clue what he wants to do. So he works at Meat Sticks, a fast-food joint in a mall, while he mulls the future. He also sleeps in the same bedroom as his much younger brother, David (Evan Assante), who asks for advice about pursuing his first kiss.

The key to the movie is Andrew’s niceness, his willingness to be open to other people’s problems and help them. So when his brother asks for romantic tips, Andrew takes his brother’s request quite seriously, framing it as a huge step toward adulthood.

He also accompanies his brother to a bat mitzvah party, where everyone sits around at tables and no one is dancing. So Andrew gets up to help get the ball rolling, and before long, everyone is on the dance floor.

The mothers swoon for Andrew and see him as the perfect “party starter” for all the bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs in their hometown. So Andrew gets a nice side gig to his days behind the counter at Meat Sticks.

At one of these parties, Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), who has a beautifully sad smile and a semi-autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Lola has been held back for three years in school because traditional educational methods aren’t suited to her intellectual abilities, so she’s an outcast at these parties, and sometimes the target of bullying from younger boys. She endures parties by putting on her headphones and solving puzzles like a Rubik’s Cube with stunning alacrity.

The romantic spark between Andrew and Domino is immediate — and grows even stronger after Andrew seems to have a knack for connecting with Lola. After a disastrous evening for Domino at yet another bar mitzvah, Andrew drives Domino and Lola home, and the romantic relationship between Domino and Andrew heats up. But there’s a big problem. Domino has a new fiancé, and he’s a top-earning lawyer who frequently travels. But he also offers stability for Domino and her daughter.

Thus the dance begins between Andrew and Domino. The earnest Andrew courts Domino and says things like: “I feel there are things that you just, like, don’t say to me. And I can’t tell whether you’re like, holding back a desire to be close or a desire to be distant.” Such is the lingo of a post-millennial slacker — and oddly reminiscent of Allen and his fumbling romances.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” draws on a lot of film history, with such notable predecessors as “The Graduate” and “Tadpole.” But there’s something different about “Cha Cha.” Raiff mixes charm with a bit of smarm in “Cha Cha,” and your enjoyment of the film might be linked to how much you see succumb to those charms and ignore the smarm.

So far, it looks like audiences are succumbing. “Cha Cha” premiered at Sundance, where it won the coveted Audience Prize. And “Cha Cha” was picked to screen at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival, where it was greeted warmly, just like Raiff’s first feature, “Shithouse.”

After Sundance, Apple TV picked up distribution rights for “Cha Cha,” and the movie will begin streaming Friday, June 17. It will also be playing on the big screen in Austin, at the Alamo on South Lamar.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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