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Cha Cha Real Smooth review: Dakota Johnson moms it up in Sundance-winning dramedy

Self-indulgent screenwriting doesn’t prevent Cooper Raiff’s sophomore film from being a charmer.

Cooper Raiff Dakota Johnson in Cha Cha Real Smooth
(Image: © Courtesy of Apple TV Plus)

Our Verdict

Cha Cha Real Smooth is a smart film, born from a preternatural level of introspection and compassion from a writer-director as young as Cooper Raiff.

For

  • Potent understanding of relationships and growing into different kinds of love
  • Dakota Johnson delivers a layered performance

Against

  • Cooper Raiff is a little too eager to make this a showcase for his natural charisma
  • Frequent jokes land more often as mild chuckles

Young people are continually told that the time to figure yourself out is in high school and college. Once you have completed your educational rites of passage, you will not only be ready for your professional life, but certain of what you’ll want and who you’ll want it with. But what if your post-graduation life is just as much of an aimless search for meaning as those formative years were? 

Writer-director Cooper Raiff seems to have this question at the forefront of his mind in the self-starring Cha Cha Real Smooth, turning on the charm to tell a crowd-pleasing, Sundance-winning tale that shows how coming of age can often be a process that follows us out of childhood.

Andrew (Raiff) is a 22-year-old college graduate whose girlfriend is headed to Spain for post-graduate study while he moves in with his mom (Leslie Mann), his stern stepdad (Brad Garrett) and his 13-year-old brother (Evan Assante) to figure out what the next step of his life is going to be. 

While attending a Bar Mitzvah and using his natural charisma to convince partygoers to make their way to the dance floor, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), the latter of which is more interested in her personal puzzles than moving her body to the beat. However, when Andrew miraculously gets Lola to bust a move with him, Domino offers him another gig as Lola’s sitter, creating a relationship that borders on romantic in spite of Domino’s engagement to her frequently absent fiancé (Raúl Castillo).

This is all presented in a slyly winking, jokey manner that relies entirely on Raiff’s natural charm, though he has rather transparently written the film to play to his strengths as an actor. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, though it does make Andrew’s characterization perhaps a little too sympathetic, a little too much of a good guy who is fumbling his way through life and whose more forthright qualities are merely side effects of a quippy personality. 

This also leaves the film feeling a little light on genuinely great jokes, particularly for how often it's trying to throw out witty laugh lines. Cha Cha is not entirely bereft of them, as a particularly gag during a job interview scene demonstrates, but it definitely fails to rise above the level that indie mumblecore comedies usually reach, which is to say mostly funny in theory.

However, while Raiff's charisma can only go so far, he most certainly succeeds with the movie's sentimentality. What at first seems to be a movie about relationships and the perils of settling for less than your soulmate, it gradually reveals itself to be a pretty potent reflection on how adulthood is not the fairy tale ending that comes after the journey of growing up.

Cha Cha Real Smooth has a startlingly potent understanding of the distinction between the possibilities of romantic connection and the appeal of domestic stability. It shows that neither is superior to the other, but they can be mutually exclusive in monogamous relationships if both people need different things in their lives. 

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Dakota Johnson’s performance, which at first comes across as depressive and longing — as if Andrew need only come in and save Domino and Lola from their comfortable but lonely existence — but gradually reveals itself to have layers of feeling that Andrew’s limited point of view (and consequently, our point of view) initially fails to see.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is a smart film, born from a preternatural level of introspection and compassion from a writer and director as young as the 25-year-old Cooper Raiff. The work may be a little too much of a self-aware showcase of Raiff’s capabilities as a charm machine, but the drama half of the dramedy equation sticks the landing hard enough that it doesn’t trip over its indulgences.

Cha Cha Real Smooth premieres on Apple TV Plus on June 17.

Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.