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
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
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
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
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.