Cha Cha Real Smooth was one the breakout films from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, with Apple paying 15 million for the rights. It was money well spent! Cooper Raiff manages to make you feel so good and so deeply throughout the hour and forty-seven-minute runtime. It is infuriating that someone as young as Raiff can write and direct a film with so much heart and nuance, creating a script that was written as if by an older man reflecting upon his younger years.
Raiff stars as Andrew, an aimless recent college graduate with a heart-of-gold as he moves back home. At a bat mitzvah for his younger brother’s friend, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), a young mother to an autistic girl named Lola in the same grade. His effervescent personality is able to bring everyone, including Lola, out of their shell. In between trying to find a real job beyond his mall employment at Meat Sticks and giving his brother advice on how to have the perfect first kiss, his life becomes intertwined with Domino’s. Simultaneously he becomes a party-starter, aka, the person who is hired to create a fun and enjoyable atmosphere at bar and bat mitzvahs. This is right up Andrew’s alley, although he has a hard time kicking the college alcoholic in him at these events.
From the first scene, it is clear that Andrew has a predilection for older women, so it is unsurprising that he develops a connection with Domino. She is a walking paradox of needs and desires, and his kind personality seems to match well to her chaos. What feels like the perfect formula for a romantic comedy is actually a coming-of-age tale as Andrew learns from his connection with Domino about the reality of life. In between the main story are many little lessons through his interactions with everyone else, including his brother (Evan Assante), his mother (Leslie Mann) and his step-father (Brad Garrett). There are no character stereotypes, but richly written real people.
I’ve never seen a film that shows exactly the moment between college and adulthood so well. The world is telling this in-betweener he is an adult, that it’s time to move on from childish things, but the adults are telling him he’s a child that needs time to discover himself. Andrew’s mom is the mom everyone wants as they are making these life-altering decisions. Mann is empathetic and cathartic for everyone who is struggling as Andrew is. Also, the film doesn’t shy away from the topic of mental health, and weaves a subtle but highly effective commentary throughout.
While the screenplay is the absolute highlight of the film, Raiff’s direction enhances it. A bat or bar mitzvah might not seem like the most exciting event, but the lighting and music comes together to create scenes that feel like the most important moment in the world. He is able to get so much out of his actors while at the same time acting right alongside them. It is clear to see just how intentional Raiff is to create this genuine and honest tone that pervades the entire film.
Is there Oscar potential for a film such as this one? In the past I’d say it was a long-shot based on the time of year it is being released and its connection to a streaming service, but Apple’s campaign team knows exactly how to maximize their chances after their propulsive victory with CODA last year. The two categories that have the best chance at being nominated are Original Screenplay for Raiff and Supporting Actress for Johnson. She is absolutely mesmerizing, and the scenes between her and Raiff are electric. After last year in The Lost Daughter and now in Cha Cha Real Smooth, it is clear that she knows exactly how to play a stressed-out mother.
Apple is crafting themselves a perfect niche of feel-good films in the industry. Cha Cha Real Smooth premiers Friday, June 17th on Apple TV+.