Dakota Johnson appears in CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH by Cooper Raiff, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review: Cha Cha Real Smooth ★★★

Cooper Raiff writes, directs, produces and leads Cha Cha Real Smooth, his sophomore feature following 2020’s Shithouse which claimed the SXSW Grand Jury Prize. This light dramedy touches on post-college ennui and coming of age tropes as it impresses as an earnest showcase for its creator and lead actress Dakota Johnson.

Twenty-two year old Andrew (Raiff) is fresh from college and lacking a clear direction in his life. The affable young man is crashing with his mother (an underused Leslie Mann) and stepdad (Brad Garrett) whilst working shifts at a local fast food shack. His chance meeting with Domino (Johnson), a young mother with an autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), sees him gain a sense of the future he aspires to have.

Cha Cha Real Smooth spends its time constructing a sense of Andrew’s directionless life – his girlfriend ventures off travelling to Spain (meeting numerous handsome Spanish hunks as Andrew discovers through Instagram) leaving him to fill the void with drinking, partying and shifts in a dead-end job. After accompanying his younger brother to a Bar Mitzvah where he thrives as a party-starter, he is guaranteed the role for an upcoming slew of celebrations courtesy of over-zealous Jewish mothers. This soon becomes a chance for him to regularly see Domino as Cha Cha Real Smooth captures Andrew’s wide-eyed adoration for the deadpan mother. Quick to form a bond, the film centres on the blossoming ‘will they, won’t they’ romantic tension building between the pair.

Further tension is injected in the arrival of Domino’s husband Joseph, Looking’s always charismatic Raúl Castillo who steps into a more obstructive role, a pleasant workaholic husband who results in Domino’s romantic holding back from Andrew. After building up the sparky carefree bonds between Domino and Lola with Andrew, the arrival of Joseph sees this complicated. The sensitive Andrew who has been hellbent on pleasing Domino now finds himself thrust back into the frustrating limbo and directionless point at which he started – prompting a self-destructive turn. Short with his previously close young brother and being dragged into fights at a later Bar Mitzvah, Andrew’s arc takes a dark turn.

Raiff largely leads with a natural grounded charisma and showcases Andrew’s affable manner with a warm and easy-going charm. He’s a strong lead – convincing in both the film’s more emotionally subtle elements and the larger blow-out scenes in the latter act. Johnson is magnetic in the role of Domino, bringing a playful wit and sense of romantic whimsy – the actress captures the notion of the young mother drawn to the handsome party-starter but also not wanting to damage her comfortable pleasant existence with the reliable Joseph.

Most of the comic gems in Cha Cha Real Smooth come from the underused Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett. Mann’s matriarch suffers from bipolar disorder (with an incident hinted at but never fully developed) and remains a calm, nurturing presence in Andrew’s life. There is a lot of potential in Mann’s role here which frustratingly does not feel quite fully tapped into. Garrett, however, is impressively used as a punchline to a lot of the humour in this comedy, with Andrew refusing to hide his playful disdain for the new patriarch.

Andrew’s unfaltering charm and general lack of any sharp edges, paired with the film’s rosy outlook on bonding with disabled children and coming to the rescue of troubled mothers can give it something of a twee quality that might bother some viewers that will struggle with its general crowd-pleasing appeal. It’s title is also something of a misfire that could do with tweaking- do we really need to be reminded of that noughties DJ Casper hit?

The charming Cha Cha Real Smooth presents an enjoyable if not slightly self-serving turn from Cooper Raiff and a hugely watchable appearance from Dakota Fanning. The narrative is engagingly breezy with a well-pitched humour but can verge on a little saccharine.

Cha Cha Real Smooth plays as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Find out more details here.

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