"... a film of exceedingly small, human pleasures..."

A Memorable But Bumpy Romance

(061622) Cha Cha Real Smooth is a human and touching but imperfect romantic drama about two romantically entangled people who meet in a chance encounter. She is much older and engaged to be married, and he has a somewhat more casual relationship with his girlfriend (or she might qualify as a f*ck buddy.) The film deals with some of the same issues as Summer of ’42 and Licorice Pizza  but it never quite rises close to that level of quality.

This uncommonly warm and accessible little Indy film is actor/director Cooper Raiff’s sophomore effort (his first was 2020’s S-house which also had a nerdy protagonist.) Cha Cha unexpectedly received the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and Apple paid a shocking fifteen million for the distribution rights.

The film’s main character, Andrew, is a quasi-likeable loser who just graduated college and lives with his parents. The protagonist with an aimless life endures the humiliation of working at a mall court food store called Meat Sticks where he has to wear a demeaning clownish uniform. His romantic interest who is shapely but shallow is planning to go to Barcelona to study, and he is hoping to earn enough money to follow her. But their relationship never seems particularly deep and their attraction seems to be mostly physical. They never struck me as “soul mates” and he also suspects her of cheating. She even tells him in bed that when they first met, she did not think he was at all attractive.

Cooper is ok as Andrew, but the main aspect that elevates the film is a winning, convincing performance by Dakota Johnson, who has stardom in her blood (she is the real-life daughter of Melanie Griffith and the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren.) Dakota is best known as the star of the vanilla soft core S&M Fifty Shades films which were phenomenally successful, but Johnson was far better in the lesser-known remake Black Mass (2015), the horror/dance film, Suspiria (2018), and the masterful Ray Bradbury adaptation, The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019), which just missed my best films list, as well as last year’s critically acclaimed, Lost Daughter.

Cha Cha begins with a flashback scene in which a 12-year-old bar mitzvah guest, Andrew feels deep romantic pangs/yearning for the party starter who is ten years older and of course this does not go anywhere. The tacked-on scene serves to establish the main character’s life trajectory and romantic preferences. The film then flashes forward ten years later to a party where the twenty something Andrew proves his worth in getting people on the dance floor and the moms there take notice. This begins his career as a party host/starter and he gets his first job at a Bar Mitzvah.

The party is quite eventful. There he almost immediately connects with Domino (Dakota) an older woman who he often gazes at longingly in close ups (first person close ups seem to be part of the director’s style). Domino has a miscarriage there and he ends up helping her with the horrific and embarrassing problem by getting her new clothes and helping her sneak out. At the event, a little autistic girl named Lola (Burghardt in the film’s other highly memorable performance) is bullied and when Andrew defends her, and he is unceremoniously fired from his party starter gig. It turns out that Dakota is Lola’s mom (by her first marriage) and since he has proven to be trustworthy, Domino hires Andrew to baby-sit her .

Burghardt is impressive in the film and the producers went to unusual lengths to get the casting right. They searched until they found an actor on the autism spectrum and they got advice from a disability nonprofit to find an autistic actress to play an autistic character.

Lola is an intellectual prodigy who is an expert at the Rubik’s cube and a superior card player. But she is rough around the edges socially and is mostly disconnected from her classmates. As Andrew baby-sits, a bond develops between the girl and her babysitter, and he becomes a kind of father figure. Also, her absentee stepfather is frequently unavailable because his lawyer job frequently takes him out of the state.

It is clear that Dakota is damaged and that her husband is not providing her the emotional support that she wants and needs and that in many ways Andrew would be a better dad. But is she seriously considering him as a life mate or is she just flirting?

This is a film of exceedingly small, human pleasures. One of the best scenes depicts a potential couple just talking while eating and she asks him if he wants to switch popsicles that after they had already started licking them. Unexpectedly this is both more romantic and erotic than most full-fledged movie sex scenes.

This film is hardly original, and at times Cooper’s performance is a little too on the nose and cloying. But all of the female performances (Vanessa Burghardt might be one of the year’s great acting discoveries and Johnson is irresistible) are much better than they have to be. They help elevate what could have been a mediocre time waster into something quite memorable.

Directed & Written  by:    Cooper Raiff
Starring:    Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burghardt
Released:    06/17/22 (USA)
Length:    107 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for  language and some sexual content
Available On:    Currently playing at some local theatres and
 streaming on Apple TV plus

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to and His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

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Review © 2023 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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