If Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth” had played at Sundance for real in the Eccles Auditorium or at the Library, there would have been wild applause, a standing ovation, and a crazy Q&A on stage. That’s how good it is. It’s the perfect kind of throwback Sundance movie.
What really makes it an event is that Raiff is 24 years old, this is his second film, he wrote, directed and stars in it. Also, Dakota Johnson, free of shackles, literally, does her best work here so far (although I also really liked her in “The High Note” with Tracee Ellis Ross).
If this were they heyday of Sundance, Harvey Weinstein and Bob Shaye would be arm wrestling to see who gets to release this sweet coming of age story made by a wunderkind from a rare point of view– the young man, not the young woman. This is “Ladybird” from the male perspective.
Raiff plays a newly minted college graduate, Andrew, who comes home to his mother’s new home with her second husband and their 12 year old son. He gets a job as a party starter at a venue that mostly does bar mitzvahs. There’s some indication that Andrew might be Jewish, but Raiff is definitely not. I think the backstory is that the mother– played by Leslie Mann– has married a Jewish guy, Brad Garrett, and they’re raising the 12 year old Jewish. No matter.
Andrew meets Dakota Johnson’s Domino, who’s a decade older, and her daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) who is autistic. They’re living with Domino’s fiance, who travels a lot for business. There’s an obvious spark between Andrew and Domino, and he immediately hits it off with Lola.
It doesn’t sound like much of a set up, the triumphs are in the details. Raiff is a star. He looks a little young Jack Nicholson crossed with Richard Benjamin. He might become a big deal actor, but I suspect he’s going to be a director primarily. For someone so young he has quite a way with moving everyone around and knowing where to put the camera. Andrew is 22 but he seems older and wiser, certainly more than Domino– at least at first. He’s also very witty, a lot more self-aware than most college grads.
Dakota Johnson’s performance reminded me of her mom, Melanie Griffith, in “Working Girl.” The trick to the screenplay it that Domino is a slow starter character who eventually accepts being an authority. She’s in almost every scene, you can’t wait to see her again, and she gradually carries the movie. She’ll get a lot of awards attention next year.
Sundance sales are slow so far. I see on Deadline.com that DisneySearchlight — home of the cannibal movie — is closing in on Emma Thompson’s excellent “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” I hope “Cha Cha” gets a great distributor who will really take care of it. It’s my favorite Sundance film so far, among a group that includes “Leo Grande,” “892,” “When You Finish Saving the World,” and “Call Jane.”