SXSW Film Review: Cha Cha Real Smooth

Age is definitely more than a number in this complicated romance

Cha Cha Real Smooth

If SXSW 2020 had gone ahead as planned, then Shithouse, the debut feature from actor/writer/director Cooper Raiff, was lined up for breakout hit status. Even with the festival canceled, Raiff's college blues still took home the Grand Jury Prize, and now he gets a second chance with Cha Cha Real Smooth.

Do-overs are sort of what his sophomore movie is about, but not necessarily as a chance to fix past wrongs. Andrew (Raiff as his own lead again) hasn't committed any sins, but he definitely isn't doing great. He's just graduated college with no direction and a lousy job, but at least he's a party starter. He's the guy who can get a bar or bat mitzvah going, which may not sound like much a skillset but boy does it keep you in demand with Jewish moms in New Jersey, desperate not to have the dance floor be empty when they've spent a fortune on venue rental. It's at one of those events that he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), single mom to Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).

Everyone's a dealing with being a little out of their age range. Andrew's great with younger teens but short on adult friends, Domino's younger than every other mom around and while she absolutely dotes on Lola, but young parenthood meant she never got the carefree 20s that she see Andrew both wasting and representing. As for Lola, her profound autism means she's three years older than everyone in her class. Meanwhile Andrew can't help sniping at stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett) and the age difference between him and his mom (Leslie Mann). It's less a theme than an undercurrent, one subtly set up by Andrew getting the knockback in an excruciatingly awkward but identifiable opening sequence.

It's scenes like this at which Raiff excels, those little personal dramas that stick in your mind years after they happen, those moments on which you gain perspective in hindsight but just feel huge at the time. Those kind of scenes allow him to veer away from an obvious three-act structure, instead constructing the story in almost a mosaic fashion, of anecdotes and moments, character progression rather than plot beats.

Cha Cha Real Smooth shows a maturation in the young filmmaker since Shithouse, but not in an ostentatious way. It's low-key and observational, and his Andrew is immature in all the right ways for a depiction of a 22-year-old. There's no self-indulgence in the part. Equally, Johnson is given real space to play with Domino's position as the "older woman" without ever falling into Mrs. Robinson tropes. There's no judgment here, just deep compassion for an impossible situation.

And that's the funny thing about do-overs. Sometimes it's not about getting it's right. Sometimes it's just about not making the same mistake twice. If Raiff's first film was about two neurotic characters learning to get out of their own heads, then Cha Cha Real Smooth is a tenderly bittersweet story about a couple learning to use theirs.

Cha Cha Real Smooth

Festival Favorites, Texas Premiere
Online: Saturday, March 19, 9am-Monday, March 21, 9am

A version of this review ran as part of our Sundance Film Festival 2022 coverage.

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SXSW 2022, SXSW Film 2022, Cha Cha Real Smooth, Cooper Raif

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