Cha Cha Real Smooth begins stream on Apple TV+ on June 17.
REVIEW: Having already parlayed Coda’s 2021 Sundance success into Oscars glory earlier this year, Apple TV+ will be hoping lightning strikes twice with Cha Cha Real Smooth (debuting on the streaming service this Friday, June 17).
A deserved winner of an audience award at the same Utah-based film festival this past January, writer-director-co-editor and star Cooper Raith’s heartwarming, crowd pleasing, yet raw and real rom-com definitely has potential to be in the next awards-season mix.
This is film that features a host of memorable scenes and characters, reflects modern-day maladies and mores, isn’t afraid to showcase that life and love can get more than a little messy and constantly defies the traditional narrative expectations of the genre.
Just when you think Cha Cha’s story is headed down a particular path, events take a sudden turn or an antagonist does something unexpected. And, as well as introducing the clearly talented Raith to many viewers, it also delivers us Dakota Johnson’s (Fifty Shades of Grey) finest – and most nuanced – performance of her career to date.
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As an opening scene set 10 years before the main action illustrates, Andrew (Raith) has always been drawn to older women. Now 22, he’s reluctantly returned to his hometown of Livingston, New Jersey, heartbroken, because his girlfriend has gained a scholarship for further studies in Barcelona.
He’s determined to follow her, but first, he needs to increase his finances. That means moving in with his mum (Leslie Mann) and step-father (Brad Garrett), sharing a room with his young teenage brother David (Evan Assante) and taking a dead-end job at mall foodcourt eaterie Meat Sticks.
However, it’s while chaperoning David to the first Bar Mitzvah of his classmates’ “season” that Andrew finds a potential new calling – and distraction.
A party going nowhere, David spices it up by making additions to the hired DJ’s playlist and cajoling young and old onto the dance floor. That includes Domino (Johnson) and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).
Three years older than most of the kids attending, Lola has autism and prefers to soak up the atmosphere rather, than engaging in any socialising. To her mother’s shock though, thanks to a few calm, choice words and Lipps Inc’s Funky Town, Andrew manages to persuade her to join the others in throwing some shapes.
Impressed at how much of a good time everyone had, a swarm of Jewish mothers descend on Andrew in the immediate aftermath, urging him to become the “party orchestrator” for all the Mitzvahs to come.
The honeymoon period though doesn’t last long, especially when he catches sight of a boy bullying Lola. Between that confrontation, embarrassing Rabbi Stenberg and exhorting the kids to dance their “waps” off, he’s asked to end his involvement early, but his departure in disgrace is waylaid by finding Domino “trapped” in the women’s toilets and in need of assistance.
An inventive solution earns him not only her respect, but an invitation to be Lola’s regular sitter. “I feel very comfortable with you,” she confesses.
“If you ever want anyone to talk to, I’ve got massive ears,” he awkwardly blurts out in reply.
It’s this authenticity around the relationships (real smooth they are not) that really compels and captivates. Not only the When Harry Met Sally-esque companionship of Domino and Andrew, but also between Andrew and David (especially as the latter seeks advice over his first interactions with girls) and Domino and Lola. If you ever needed proof of how tone-deaf Sia’s god-awful Music was, here it is.
This is a smart, shaded, sensitive portrayal of growing up with autism (or with an autistic child), helped greatly by having an actor (Burghardt) who is on the spectrum herself.
Cha Cha Real Smooth debuts on Apple TV+ on June 17.