The best movie characters, ones audiences take to and see themselves in, aren’t always idyllic.
Filmmakers find genuine beauty in flaws and imperfections in their personalities and psyches that allows viewers to naturally respond and become more fully transported into another world.
Cooper Raiff’s second feature film – an audience award winner earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival – screened this past week at the Tribeca Festival before debuting in select theaters and Apple TV+ on Friday.
The Dallas native wrote, directed and stars in Cha Cha Real Smooth, featuring Raiff as Andrew, a down on his luck recent college graduate working as a Bar Mitzvah party host who befriends an isolated mother and her autistic daughter. It’s a film with boundless heart, flawed characters who don’t always do the right thing and an unflinching, un-fakeable authenticity.
Cha Cha Real Smooth feels more genuine and honest about personal flaws than any coming-of-age dramedy since 2017’s Lady Bird and there’s a sentimentality to Raiff’s screenplay and direction that seeps into every crevasse of the film to tug at viewers’ heartstrings at the perfect moments.
Raiff portrays Andrew with an unbridled passion for life that he just can’t seem to control. His work shows Andrew as a man who wants to be great but has no idea who he is or wants to be come and there’s a frantic energy to every interaction Andrew has in Cha Cha Real Smooth that reflects Andrew’s longing for a real life to start.
There’s a distinct feeling viewers get watching the film that Andrew (as well as Raiff as a filmmaker) cares so deeply about almost every character that he will do whatever it takes to make others as happy as he wants to be himself. The sentimentality of that notion shines through in Raiff’s performance and drives much of Andrew’s motivations.
Raiff’s work is perfectly counterbalanced in the film by Dakota Johnson’s more free-spirited, yet melancholic turn as Domino, a young mother of an autistic teen whose life hasn’t gone the way she probably wanted. The duo creates a chemistry between Andrew and Domino that has a magnetic push and pull of emotional infatuation rather than true romantic connection.
Both Andrew and Domino make decisions in the film that audiences may cringe at, but Cha Cha Real Smooth approaches it through Raiff’s screenplay in such a way that there aren’t really any judgments, rather an appreciation for the complexity of real life.
Every performance in Smooth has to work perfectly for Raiff’s script to shine as much as it does and the acting across the board is nothing short of pitch perfect.
The film’s young actors should be stealing the show, but Raiff and Johnson have a distinct and palpable energy to their chemistry that takes Smooth to another stratosphere.
Newcomer Vanessa Burghardt is heart-melting as Domino’s daughter, Lola, and there’s a winning charm to her interactions with Andrew as she warms up to his presence in her life that the entire movie could have been built around.
Evan Assante’s bond with Raiff as Andrew’s tween brother David and the instantaneous love felt for Andrew’s relationship with Leslie Mann’s turn as his mother allows audiences to warm up to Andrew in a more well-rounded way, showing his inherent sweetness on a familial level as much as an idyllic romantic level.
As a director, Raiff gives his film a very distinct vibe by often turning up the color contrast to deepen the shadows and highlight the bright colors, which especially work wonders during night scenes and the frequent party sequences of the film. It’s as if the visuals match the frantic energy racing through Andrew’s head.
Cha Cha Real Smooth deserves to be a major awards contender later this year, especially Raiff’s wholly original screenplay and Johnson’s magnetic supporting performance. The one downfall, however, may be Apple’s focus on the much more star-studded upcoming Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon that may pull voters’ eyeballs away from a smaller, more intimate movie.
Raiff’s second feature film will be a crowd favorite worth heading to theaters to revel in the humor and emotion with others, though its ease of access on Apple TV+ helps ensure Cha Cha Real Smooth becomes an instant hit with an even larger audience than a normal independent dramedy might.