Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson star in "Cha Cha Real Smooth" (Image: Apple TV+)

After garnering critical acclaim at SXSW in 2020 for his debut “S#!%house” it looks as if Dallas writer-director-actor Cooper Raiff is no flash in the pan thanks to the delightful and very funny “Cha Cha Real Smooth” which just hit theaters and is streaming on Apple TV+. The sophomore film features a terrific cast that includes Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, and a terrific debut from young actress Vanessa Burghardt. Raiff is once again the protagonist of his dramedy sticking close to the formula that put him on Hollywood’s radar.

The film opens with a flashback to 2010 as Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On” plays in the background at a party where we meet 12-year-old Andrew who is fixated on the much older 20-something host of the event Bella. He tells his mom (Leslie Mann) “I’m in love.” After a foreseeable and touching let down scene, the timeline jumps ahead 10 years just as Andrew (now played by Raiff) is celebrating graduating from college. His girlfriend is off to Barcelona, and he’s headed back to his family’s home in New Jersey unsure what he’s going to do after college.

Raiff plays the perfect man-child, a cross between Pete Davidson and Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in “The Graduate.” It doesn’t take long to notice that Andrew is a caring person based on his interactions with younger brother David (a very good Evan Assante), who is at the same age as Andrew during the film’s opening scene. In fact, Andrew is so good with kids that a group of Jewish moms hire him to be their official DJ/Party Starter at all the upcoming bar/bat mitzvahs. His supportive mom is happy for her son while grumpy stepdad Greg chimes in “How much does a party starter get paid, I wonder” to which Andrew snaps back, “I think they said just under what an unhappy pharmaceutical exec makes.” The jab at Greg reinforces the fact that both Andrew and David think he’s a jerk, but he treats their mother well and she loves him, so he gets a hall pass.

Dakota Johnson is the film’s gem as Domino, the mother of autistic Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) who is one of David’s classmates. She’s battling depression while trying to raise her daughter single-handedly, fiancé Joseph (Raúl Castillo) is a lawyer who is out of town most of the time while working in Chicago. Domino and Lola attend all the bar mitzvahs together and that’s where they meet Andrew who notices the two sitting alone, none of the moms or kids interacting with the two. He befriends Lola and convinces her to get out on the dancefloor much to Domino’s surprise. The three become good friends. Andrew becomes Lola’s sitter while his attraction to Domino intensifies and there are moments that confirm she is also attracted to him, but there’s the fiancé that’s holding her back.

The chemistry between Johnson and Raiff is undeniable which is why their scenes work better than they should. The actors are only seven years apart in age, but it feels like the distance between the two is much greater thanks to the characters’ different maturity levels. Andrew is very much still a kid. He drinks too much, has meaningless sex, and works at a fast-food joint when he’s not starting a party, yet he knows that eventually, he wants to work for a nonprofit. Yes, he’s a good guy but at a different stage in life than Domino who had Lola when she was young and is at a point in her life where she is ready to sacrifice love over security. Joseph can offer that. Johnson’s layered performance is the film’s biggest asset. It’s a dramatic role that balances out Raiff’s comedic disposition. Also, “Cha Cha” is not a love story, yet passionate affection plays a prominent role in the film. Therefore, you’re not rooting for Andrew and Lola to get together, you are, however, rooting for them to discover their place in life, and by the film’s end, they eventually do. Raiff as writer, director, and star puts himself at the center of his work but knows how to shift the spotlight to his wonderful cast.

Mann is superb at anything she does, and Garrett is always a pleasure to see. There are just a few scenes with Raúl Castillo as the absentee fiancé, but his strong performance is all that’s needed for us to recognize that his character knows exactly what’s happening between Domino and Andrew and the role he plays in his fiancé’s life. Odeya Rush has a few memorable scenes as Andrew’s college friend with benefits but it’s the young actors in the film, Evan Assante and especially newcomer Vanessa Burghardt, that really shine.

‘Cha Cha Real Smooth” was one of my favorite films at Sundance this year. It’s a feel-good movie that moves away from the Dallas filmmaker’s indie roots and moves closer to mainstream Hollywood. Still, the writing is terrific, remaining edgy with just a few predictable moments, and the performances are first-rate. It’s the kind of movie that you’ll want to revisit from time to time. That’s 2-0 for Dallas native Cooper Raiff who is one of the most promising young filmmakers on the scene.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.