June 14, 2022

Self-Exploration and Modern Jewish Culture Take Center Stage in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (Review)

I’ve attended many a school dance. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve heard the “Cupid Shuffle” played over the speakers, which is almost always followed by nearly everybody being dragged out onto the dance floor. The words “Cha cha real smooth” became synonymous with rolling your fists around each other and turning in a perfect circle. Now, Cha Cha Real Smooth is synonymous with a film that I sorely hope gets the attention it deserves.

Image courtesy of Apple TV+

A standout from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Cha Cha Real Smooth comes at us courtesy of writer/director Cooper Raiff, who also stars as Andrew, a twenty-something young man who is noticeably unsure about his own future. Raiff is previously best known for his directorial debut Shithouse, in which he also played an awkward college student without the big hopes and dreams that many young people have.

Cha Cha Real Smooth begins with a younger Andrew proclaiming his love for Bella, the dance instructor at a bar mitzvah, with a firm belief that she loves him too. His idealism prove to be a bit too fantastical, and although we’re spared from the more excruciating secondhand embarrassment, we still feel Andrew’s pain. Years later, things aren’t much better, but Andrew manages to get a job as a party host during bar mitzvah season. At one such party, he strikes up a friendship with Domino (Suspiria’s Dakota Johnson), a young mother, and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).

The word I heard being tossed around in association with Cooper Raiff most frequently is “quirky.” And while it is true that Raiff’s sensibilities are more eccentric than not, it’s done out of love. As the chief creative, he’s completely in control of the material, and you can see that this is the story that he wants to tell. He brings an authenticity to the film that only the person behind the story can, and he’s clearly thrilled to be in front of the camera as well. His smiles are infectious and his charm is evident, and I definitely wouldn’t mind spending more time with his or any of the other characters here.

Image courtesy of Apple TV+

There aren’t many primary cast members, and everyone has their standout moments. Apart from Raiff, the others most consistently engaging are Dakota Johnson and Vanessa Burghardt, who are not only convincingly cute as mother and daughter, but seem to have a deeper understanding of the situations that both of their characters are in. It’s likely just a testament to the strength of their performances, but I can’t wait to see more from them; especially Johnson, who (like Jamie Dornan) deserves a much better reputation than “that one from Fifty Shades of Grey.” Her role in Cha Cha is proof that she can handle not just serious drama but naturalistic levity as well, often in the same scene.

At its core, Cha Cha Real Smooth is about all kinds of human connection, and how the influx or lack thereof can affect a person. Relationships and friendships are tricky, and even though it can be difficult to get across, communication is paramount. Andrew’s mother (played by Leslie Mann) tells him more than once that he doesn’t know everything, and though he’d like to believe otherwise, we still see pieces of that idealistic youngster we meet in the opening scene. He still doesn’t know quite who he is, but that’s okay — part of being young is that you’re still figuring that out.

I believe a part of the reason I loved Cha Cha Real Smooth is the kinship I feel with both Raiff and his character. Like Andrew, I’m currently in college and still trying to figure out where I want my life to go, and even though I have ideas of dreams, it can be tough to nail down exactly what I want. But one thing will always be true: there are things that happen in life that are unexpected and wonderful, and even if it’s fleeting, the experience will always be there. That’s a valuable outlook on life, and I’m happy to have taken that away from Cha Cha Real Smooth — even if I always feel silly saying the title out loud.

Image courtesy of Apple TV+

Cha Cha Real Smooth will be streaming on Apple TV+ this Friday.

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