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‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’: When the one ‘becoming a man’ is the bar mitzvah emcee

Cooper Raiff wrote, directed, and stars in this story about a recent college grad who falls for an older woman (Dakota Johnson) with an autistic daughter (Vanessa Burghardt)

Cooper Raiff, left, and Dakota Johnson in "Cha Cha Real Smooth."Sundance Institute via AP

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” has a premise as oddball as its title. Andrew (Cooper Raiff) recently graduated from Tulane. He’s at loose ends, sharing a bedroom with his younger brother, David (Evan Assante), in their parents’ house in the New Jersey suburbs. He has a dead-end job working the counter at a fast-food chain. No, nothing especially oddball about any of that. The odd part is that he moonlights as a social director for bar mitzvahs. Andrew emcees, he sings, he dances, he energizes, he cajoles. It’s a sight to see. He doesn’t meet cute. He works cute. The mothers all love him.


In addition to streaming on Apple TV+, “Cha Cha” is playing at the Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, and Dedham Community.

Cooper Raiff, left, and Evan Assante in "Cha Cha Real Smooth."Apple TV+

At a bar mitzvah before he gets the job, Andrew encounters a single mother, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). David knows Lola from school. One look at Domino, and Andrew is pretty much a goner. She’s a decade or more older. She’s also engaged. Andrew doesn’t care. He’s a bit feckless, yes. He’s also single-minded, not unlike a lower-key, college-grad version of Jason Schwartzman’s character in “Rushmore” (1998), speaking of bright young men obsessed with an older woman.

Things here are going to get tangled, and not just emotionally.

Vanessa Burghardt, left, and Dakota Johnson in "Cha Cha Real Smooth."Apple TV+

This is a situation that could be played for comedy, and some of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is quite funny. But relationships interest Raiff far more than laughs do. This is the third feature he’s written and directed, after “Madeline & Cooper” (2018) and “S#!%house” (2020, no, that’s not how the actual title is spelled). Considering that he turned 25 in February, this is an impressive track record.

The relationships can be romantic, but Raiff doesn’t limit “Cha Cha” to just those. The age difference between Andrew and David puts an interesting spin on their relationship. Andrew’s relationships with his mother (Leslie Mann) is deep and abiding — and a bit complicated. It’s further complicated by the fractiousness of his relationship with his stepfather (Brad Garrett). “Greg, I think your purpose on Earth is to make things weird,” Andrew says to him. The blend of confrontation and comedy in that sentence is very Andrew. The most interesting and unusual relationship is the bond he forms with Lola. Burghardt, herself autistic, makes her screen debut with casual authority.


Leslie Mann, Cooper Raiff, and Brad Garrett in “Cha Cha Real Smooth."Apple TV+ via AP

All the actors are very good, though Raiff, who’s in almost every scene, can get a little wearying with his combination of high energy and touch of winsomeness. “Gosh, you’re really sweet,” Domino says to Andrew. He really is. It’s both what’s best about “Cha Cha” and what’s most maddening about it.

It’s Domino who’s the soul of the movie. She’s very different from the mother Johnson played in her previous movie, “The Lost Daughter” (2021). Domino’s looks are what first catch Andrew’s attention. Her emotional restraint is what holds it. She’s the still point in his turning world — the movie’s, too. He’s a bundle of buoyancy and despair. Domino is incapable of the former and beyond the latter — alert to it, but beyond it. Though we never see her cha cha, you can bet that real smooth is how she’d do it.



Written and directed by Cooper Raiff. Starring Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burghardt, Evan Assante, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Dedham Community. 109 minutes. R (language, sexual content).


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.