Andrew (Raiff) returned home after graduating from college. In an effort to find purpose, he takes a regular job at Bar Mitzvahs, through which he befriends Domino (Johnson) and his autistic daughter Lola (Burghardt).
You don’t need to be familiar with the American Bar Mitzvah party industry to know the moves of its dance floor staple ‘Cha Cha Slide’. You slide left, then right, criss-cross your feet, and the rest goes from there. The same can be said for the movie which references the lyrics of this song, Cha Cha real smooththe second independent film from Sundance-winning Cooper Raiff, which he also wrote and starred in. Bat and Bar Mitzvahs frequently provide the film’s scene — think yarmulkes, cakes, and the crowd of goofy 12-year-olds hanging out to trap music — but at its heart, the film is a character study of a aimless but affable young man, The graduation-style, through post-academic life.
The film shares connective tissue in many ways with Raiff’s first film First year (title Shit in the United States), a sometimes frankly honest account of shy student Alex (played by Raiff) awkwardly navigating through the social demands of college life. Like Alex, Raiff’s character here, Andrew, always expresses his feelings shrewdly, which contributes to some of the film’s most tender moments – especially between Dakota Johnson’s character, Domino; his teenage daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who was held back at school due to her autism; and Andrew’s bipolar mother, played with seasoned maternal warmth by Leslie Mann.
Each of Raiff’s characters is likeable and redeemable, even when making bad decisions.
Domino and Andrew connect via a series of long stares at the cloth-covered tables at the Bar Mitzvah of one of Lola’s classmates (Andrew followed his little brother). Her relative youth and ability to wear clothes very well have made Domino an outcast among the other mothers in the community, but her bond with Lola and the need to give her as conventional of an adolescence as possible drives her regularly to these duties. Andrew’s ability to win over Lola, whose autism manifests in a need for strict rules and boundaries, heralds the start of a complicated but well-meaning relationship with the two.
Johnson – an ever-enigmatic and alluring on-screen presence – collaborated with Raiff on his character, who suffers from depressive feelings, only pulling Andrew further into his orbit. As a result, her dialogue feels more nuanced and lived-in, as a woman a decade older than Andrew’s 22. Raiff, who is 25, imbues the surrounding script with an unbridled seriousness. Each of its characters is likable and redeemable, even when making bad decisions. It’s a quality that sometimes dominates the film; though rooted in a suburban community of people with real issues, Raiff’s palpable love for the characters he created makes them romantic to the point that they feel at odds with the world he has. created for them.
Yet it’s still an impressively observational film, and its devout lack of cynicism makes Cha Cha real smooth a tonic, brimming with messy and bearable characters and ending on an affectionate and hopeful note. Cynics may bristle at Raiff’s optimistic intentions, but this is a film named after the lyrics of a hopelessly cheesy dance song, after all.
Raiff’s confident and intelligent writing and direction, coupled with the strength of his cast, make for an irresistibly charming and emotionally charged treat.