Sundance movie review: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ is the best of the fest so far

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Sundance movie review: 'Cha Cha Real Smooth' is the best of the fest so far

Andrew (Cooper Raiff) helps Domino (Dakota Johnson) home in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 24 (UPI) — Cha Cha Real Smooth, which premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival Sunday, is the most accessible movie to screen at the fest so far. It’s the kind of indie comedy that thrived at the fest in the ’90s like Clerks and Big Night, but alas, even those are rarities in 2022.

Andrew (Cooper Raiff) just graduated college and works at a hot dog stand in the mall. At a family Bar Mitzvah, Andrew helps get the kids participating in the party. So parents with other budding 13-year-olds in the New Jersey area hire Andrew to be their party starter, although he still doesn’t earn enough to leave the hot dog stand.

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At the first Bar Mitzvah, Andrew met Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). He keeps running into them, as many of the kids in the same class will have Bar Mitzvahs this year.

Domino is engaged, but she and Andrew have a connection. Domino especially likes that Andrew talks to Lola without talking down to her.

Raiff is a movie star. Raiff wrote and directed Cha Cha Real Smooth and gave himself a vehicle to show the world his leading man talents. Cha Cha is his second feature and he’s starred in both.

Andrew is charming, friendly and social. He’s a good guy who can charm parents and children alike, but also be vulnerable and defensive. In his first paid gig, Andrew clashes with the parents of a bully and he’s too progressive for the Rabbi. That just makes him cooler.

The relationship he forms with Domino is the natural connection that forms between two adults just by being present. Andrew helps her in a very intimate emergency. He’s seen her in a vulnerable situation and was empathetic.

So by the time he helps her get home, she invites him to stay and talk. The experience they share together is palpable, and entirely lost on a culture that meets via app even before the pandemic.

Domino and Andrew have been through something together, whether it turns romantic or not. But the chemistry between Raiff and Johnson is intense.

Andrew is only 22 and Domino is in her 30s. Raiff may be wise beyond his years to observe the relationship dynamics he portrays, but Andrew is a typical 22-year-old. He’s still having and processing new experiences.

Perhaps Cha Cha Real Smooth does not have a concept quite high enough for a Hollywood comedy, although the Bar Mitzvah party job is a hook. Instead of Wedding Crashers, it’s Bar Mitzvah Starters.

Even non Jewish audiences could relate to the pageantry of suburban family activities. Cha Cha Real Smooth reflects the insular community of sincere people just living.

The film does not quite go into how sustainable a business this is for Andrew. Eventually all the kids in town will turn 13. How long will it be until the next generation comes of age?

That’s less relevant because Cha Cha Real Smooth is less about Andrew’s business than it is about him finding himself. He meets people outside his young adult circle and has new experiences. It is a beautiful, often hilarious, and endearing film.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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