Who is this early 20s Cooper Raiff Actor / Director / Writer with his sunshiny smile and zest for life, dishing up John Hughes-esque comfort food? Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff's follow-up to Shithouse, is energetic, amiable and moving. When a coming-of-age movie clicks, it can be a really special treasure. Strong dramedies are rare these days in a film era of more sardonic, untouchable coolness akin to Dakota Johnson, Raiff's co-star, who delivers an incredibly nuanced and emotional performance. So I was surprised how much I relished this rough-hewn flick that is as unabashedly uncool as a Bar Mitzvah dance floor.
Raiff's Andrew is in the aimless post-undergraduate slump: his love interest off in Barcelona with another guy, he's working a job at an icky bright yellow hot dog place in the mall, and he lives at home with his mother (Leslie Mann, who humorously doesn't age in the story's ten year time-jump) and stepfather (Brad Garrett) and younger brother David (Evan Assante). With Andrew's knack of getting people on the dance floor at the seemingly endless cycle of Bar Mitzvahs in his community, Raiff soon becomes a hired Bar Mitzvah party-starter and also meets Domino (Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (an excellent Vanessa Burghardt in her film debut). Raiff quickly becomes closer to Domino and starts helping care for Lola. The plot sounds cutesy, and at times, the movie is a bit flighty and sugary, but the performances, especially from Johnson and Burghardt, neutralize the movie with a sense of mystery and emotion. When Andrew makes a statement to Domino, almost pleading and puppy dog-eyed, that he feels like she's always withholding something--it's almost akin to the mismatched styles of Raiff and Johnson themselves and makes for electric chemistry. Raiff lays it all out with fervent kineticism; Johnson is more reserved, nonchalant and enigmatic. Johnson displayed a glimpse of her magnetic qualities and range in a small but crucial role as Nina in Maggie Gyllenhaal's The Lost Daughter, so it's exciting to watch her roam freely and expressively here in a more expansive role. The movie is breezy, but doesn't feel as if it rushes through anything. At its most rom-comy substantiveness, it recalls the golden age of Cameron Crowe. Cha Cha Real Smooth is a shudderingly awkward title to type, but I was enamored with it, freeze pop color continuity problems and all. ***1/2