SXSW Movie Review: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

Greetings again from the darkness. It seems society has reached a point where most of us are at least a bit skeptical of someone being nice. We assume there is an ulterior motive for acts of altruism. Writer-director-actor Cooper Raiff won a SXSW award for his first feature film (a title I can’t print here), and he follows that up with this feel-good dramedy that may very well inspire us to have a bit more faith in humanity … well at least some of humanity.

When we first meet Andrew (Mr. Raiff), he’s attending the Bar Mitzvah of a classmate, and finds himself attracted to Bella (Kelly O’Sullivan, who was so good in SAINT FRANCIS, 2019), the older ‘party starter’. What really hits home with Andrew is how Bella takes an obviously unsettling phone call in the stairwell before flipping her smile back on and returning to her hosting duties. We then jump ahead 10 years, and Andrew has just graduated college. His girlfriend heads off to Barcelona while he moves back in with his mother Leslie Mann) and stepdad (Brad Garrett), sleeping on a blow-up mattress in his younger brother David’s (Evan Assante) room. As he contemplates his next step in life, Andrew works the counter at ‘Meat Sticks’, a shopping mall based fast food stop that forces him to wear a royal blue vest and bright red visor. Talk about motivation for transitioning into adulting.

This ties back into the early scene of young Andrew because when he accompanies David to a Bar Mitzvah, Andrew is attracted to the beauty Domino (Dakota Johnson), mother of autistic Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). We watch as Andrew’s charm convinces to Lola to dance for the first time, a friendly gesture that intrigues her mother. Things change quickly for Andrew. Other Jewish moms take note of Andrew and hire him as a ‘party starter’, Domino hires Andrew to periodically babysit Lola, David starts eliciting romance advice from big brother, and Domino and Andrew begin their “will they or won’t they” flirtations.

Of course, things aren’t as simple or rosy as they might seem. Domino has a lawyer fiancé (Raul Castillo), and she’s burdened with emotional pain that she barely acknowledges – though she does admit to Andrew that she struggles with depression. There are also mental health issues associated with Andrew’s mother, and we infer that plays an important part in his own makeup and desire to help others. It turns out Andrew and Domino are both defined (perhaps burdened) by their need to help others, while ignoring their own well-being. Neither are saints, as both have flaws. An engaged Domino battles her urges with Andrew, while he drinks too much, has a jealous streak, and snaps at loved ones when upset.

Filmmaker Raiff benefits from a terrific and fully engaged performance from Ms. Dakota. Raiff himself is not a polished actor, but this is an advantage for his role as Andrew – a young man drifting at a time he should be focused. The film takes a sincere approach to characters we know. The cringe-factor rarely, if ever, pops up. The most cynical might find it saccharine, but most will appreciate the sweetness Andrew displays as he fumbles around with what love means. He may be somewhat goofy, but he’s also good-hearted, and enjoys making a difference and helping others. Raiff’s film may be as eager to please as its protagonist, yet that’s not such a bad thing. And yes, the “Cha Cha Slide” does feature in a dance scene, so the film’s title isn’t totally off the wall (but almost).

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