“I feel very comfortable around you and I don’t know why,” Domino (Dakota Johnson) tells Andrew (Cooper Raiff) after a long night in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” The two have just gotten back from one of the many bar mitzvahs her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) is obligated to attend as her class all turns 13, and Andrew, back home from graduating Tulane, has found an unexpected professional calling as a party starter, impressing parents with luring their nervous kids out onto the dance floor after convincing his brother David (Evan Assante) and his friends to do so and could use the extra cash from being an MC, or “Jig Conductor” as he names himself, hoping to join his college girlfriend Maya in Barcelona where she’s on a Fulbright Scholarship. Domino is particularly taken with him when her autistic daughter is especially self-conscious, preferring her Rubik’s cube than to be with her classmates, yet Andrew even gets her boogying to “Funkytown.”
Although Domino learns later this took a substantial bribe on Andrew’s part, his considerable charm was clearly at work as well and when she wonders how easy everything feels in his company, you may be asking yourself the same about Raiff, the 22-year-old writer/director/actor who stretched out the thinnest of premises for his delightful debut “Shithouse” based on the chemistry he had with co-star Dylan Gelula and delivers another feel good winner here. Certainly the cool, casually beautiful cinematography of Cristina Dunlap and seductive synthy score from Este Haim and Chris Stracey make “Cha Cha Real Smooth” all very easy to slip into, but Raiff does possess that special X factor that can’t easily be described, but seems to emerge from an open heart and an unusual lack of cynicism. Like his previous film, his latest feels like it’s about something even when everyone’s life on screen is at a standstill, with Andrew having only vague ideas about his future and clinging to whatever’s closest to him though it’s unlikely to last and Domino in a relationship with Joseph (Raul Castillo), a lawyer who spends more time working in Chicago than with her in New Jersey, though she’s considering making the move.
On opposite ends of what they’ve been made to believe is their prime, Domino has to wonder what her twenties would’ve looked like if she didn’t have a kid, as much as she adores Lola, and feels a little helpless watching Andrew fumble around his. Neither can say they’re aimless, but they’re being pulled in directions that they know they’d rather not go and even after Joseph comes back to town, Domino finds she has a lot more to talk about with Andrew after their dates than with her fiancee. Raiff sets up “Cha Cha Real Smooth” rather cleverly when you see this isn’t the first time he’s considered courting an older woman, thinking nothing of asking the twentysomething party starter at one of the bar mitzvahs as a 13-year-old himself if she’ll go out on a date with him and let down softly leading him to know now that not everyone is on the same timeline as he is. Still, even if romance is off the table, which “Cha Cha Real Smooth” nonetheless flirts with periodically, there are other kinds of emotional nourishment to be gained from meeting the right person at the right time, no matter what their age is.
Even as you can see how hard it is for Domino and Andrew to work things through, the film itself seems so natural and effortless. The warm, knockabout family dynamics between Andrew and his mom Lisa (Leslie Mann) and his stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett) take mere seconds together to establish and there’s a quiet sense of urgency that’s driving both him and Domino to consider making changes in their lives that never feels forced. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” Ironically for a film about a guy that works at parties, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” comes across as a party without the work and Raiff couldn’t make it feel any more inviting.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” will screen virtually at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th for a 24-hour window starting at 8 am MT.