Right from Sundance comes the charming and sincere Cha Cha Real Smooth from director Cooper Raiff. Raiff may be only twenty-five, but his handle on snappy dialogue, complicated relationships and tackling tricky mental disorders and neurological divergences is admirable.
His abilities also extend to capturing a range of voices, from his middle-school aged brother (Evan Assante) to a mother longing for stability (Dakota Johnson) to a high school grad questioning if she’s already peaked (Odeya Rush). Considering Raiff pitched the film to Johnson without having a script ready to go, his world is built out with refreshing specificity.
Dakota Johnson has had an intriguing career path, from the beginnings of Fifty Shades of Grey to the weirdness of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria to her mysterious mother in The Lost Daughter. I can’t help but think of another actress, Kristen Stewart, who’s walked the line from B-movie fodder to complex fare. Yet, Johnson’s gift is her extraordinary maturity. She utters lines like a Chekhovian protagonist, weighted with years of toil. It helps that her chemistry with Raiff is off the charts. His smile, longing eyes and emotional range is impressive for his youth, and the wit of his writing shines through most charmingly when he delivers the one-liners. Though he is clearly an artist of many strengths, I hope he continues to take acting opportunities.
Leslie Mann is brilliant as Raiff’s bipolar mother, Assante is moving in his brotherly idolization and Raul Castillo is strong as a no-nonsense fiance. This is a strong ensemble all around, setting a foundation for technical elements to mirror rather than elevate quality. Raiff uses a hits-influenced soundtrack and electronic scoring to draw out emotions in a natural progression. Henry Hayes’ editing splices with flare, often cutting at the exact point when a joke has run its course. Cristina Dunlap’s camerawork allows for the unspoken to take on its own narrative – it is a film of tempting gazes. All in all, Raiff’s sophomore effort is a win and worked its way into my heart.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is now streaming on Apple TV+ and playing in select theaters