Cha Cha Real Smooth Review: Cooper Raiff And Dakota Johnson Star In This Ultra-Charming Modern Rom-Com [Sundance 2022]

Inspired by indie stalwarts like the Duplass Brothers, writer/director/producer/star Cooper Raiff crafts a low-key, personality-driven hit with "Cha Cha Real Smooth," a fun, largely playful romantic-comedy which also uses melancholy to great effect. Raiff's first feature, "Shithouse," won the top prize at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, and his sophomore effort is another crowd-pleaser which establishes him as a welcome voice on the indie scene.

Fresh out of college, 22-year-old Andrew (Raiff) is back in his hometown, working a dead-end job at a fast food joint and living with his family — his bipolar mom (Leslie Mann), aggressively boring stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett), and younger brother David (Evan Assante), who's in junior high — spinning his wheels while he pines for his old college girlfriend, who moved to Barcelona to start the next chapter of her life without him. While accompanying David to a bat mitzvah, Andrew meets Domino (Johnson), a beguiling young mother of an autistic girl named Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Lola is more comfortable wearing headphones and solving a Rubik's cube than busting a move on the dance floor, and since the music at the party sucks, Andrew takes it upon himself to breathe some life into the proceedings, using his natural charisma to inspire the kids (including Lola) to dance. Turns out he might actually have a future as a professional party starter.

Undeniable Chemistry

Over the course of several bat/bar mitzvahs, Andrew continues to spin into Domino and Lola's orbit and develops a genuine friendship with both of them — even if he's holding out hope that the relationship with Domino evolves into something more. For a film like this to really sing, its two leads need to have undeniable chemistry. Thankfully, Raiff and Johnson are incredible together: you can almost see the sparks flying between them when their characters are flirting or glancing at each other across crowded rooms, and the scenes they share — like a late-night bonding session after Andrew served as Lola's babysitter — are the movie's best. Johnson is terrific as Domino, a character who, in the wrong hands, might have slipped into seeming flighty or even toppled into dreaded manic pixie dream girl territory. But Johnson imbues her with self-awareness and an underlying sense of maturity, even as Domino does immature things. It's a tricky tightrope to walk, but the actress makes it look like the most natural thing in the world.

Raiff, meanwhile, feels like he could be one of your most charming friends — one of those guys who can talk his way into or out of just about any situation. Andrew is always quick with a joke (and this movie is very, very funny), but Raiff has a down-to-Earth quality that helps him feel more like a real person and less like an emotionally stunted man-child character from a Judd Apatow movie. He also brings an important fraternal energy to the film, since Andrew serves as a big brother figure to Lola and as an actual big brother to David, spending much of the movie offering tips to the youngster about how to orchestrate his first kiss. But Andrew is in his early 20s, so he can also be a selfish jerk at times — although this isn't the type of movie where you ever feel like he's going to permanently fracture the most important relationships in his life.

"Cha Cha Real Smooth" might feel formulaic to those who have been tracking the evolution of the romantic comedy from its glossy '90s heyday to the more stripped-down, DIY iterations that have taken over in the last several years. But even if its archetypes might feel overly familiar, the formula works for a reason, and when anything is executed with such pure-hearted joy and affection for its characters, you can't help but smile.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10