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'Cha Cha Real Smooth' Review: A charming remedy to modern cynicism

'Cha Cha Real Smooth' - Cooper Raiff

Regularly playing host to twee independent American cinema, the Sundance Film Festival is well-known for signposting some of the most anticipated films of the coming year, with the favourite of 2022 being the Cooper Raiff romantic comedy Cha Cha Real Smooth. Taking home the coveted audience award for Best US drama, the 25-year-old filmmaker created a movie that fits snugly inside the indie-drama template, providing an insightful look into the immaturity of adolescent life with an emotional maturity way beyond his own years. 

Created for Apple TV, and feeling a lot like a clean, peppy advert for an iMac, Cha Cha Real Smooth proves to be more than a mere commercial exercise, baring its heart proudly on its sleeve by putting together a sincerely heartfelt narrative, devoid of cynicism. 

At a midpoint in his life, betwixt childhood and adulthood, the story centres on Andrew (Raiff) a young man in his early twenties who works as a Bar Mitzvah party host when he’s not working at a nearby fast food joint. Encouraging every parent and child to get up and dance, he encounters a mother named Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who both become integral figures in his life when they become more than mere acquaintances. 

Striking a friendship with Lola, having also struggled himself with neurodiversity in his family, Andrew becomes a trusted carer figure in their family, a fact that’s complicated when he and Domino strike a romantic connection, despite her marital status. Complicating the usual rom-com narrative, as their lives entwine, the rules of the genre aren’t entirely adhered to, creating a genuinely heartwarming tale of growth and regret in adolescence. 

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Far too often in coming-of-age tales, it is the start of the adolescent transition that is focused on, looking at awkward spotty 13-year-olds who struggle through high school, or conversely, those nearing the very end of their teenage years who will soon be travelling off to college. Raiff instead looks at the directionless age of one’s early twenties, when the education system is no longer providing the path for growth and life choices feel pressured to be made. 

Despite only being 25 himself, Raiff seems to have a solid grasp of this curious adolescent moment, directing his own script with marvellous control that elicits charming performances from each of the lead cast members. Accessing a truthful empty daunting optimism that overshadows such years of one’s life, it is in this control of the film’s central themes that Raiff allows it to excel so triumphantly. 

Earnest in his delivery, there are times when Raiff’s endearing view on post-college life comes across as a little too saccharine when celebratory moments are captured in slow-motion and scored to a vacant folk tune, though thankfully these moments are scarce, simply providing a reminder of the filmmaker’s youth in a genre that has long since moved past such clichés. 

For times that so wildly require a dose of concentrated sweetness, perhaps Cha Cha Real Smooth is simply the right film for the right time, with Apple replicating the tone and sheer glee of their Best Picture-winning success CODA. Suffused with a bounty of warmth, Cooper Raiff’s film is an optimistic take on the adolescent transition that demonstrates how life after youth can be far more electrifying.

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