‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ smart and charming and delightfully offbeat

Vanessa Burghardt, left, and Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” (Courtesy of Apple TV+)

Writer-director-star Cooper Raiff’s smart and charming and delightfully offbeat “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a movie very much of the present day, but there’s something almost nostalgic about the self-consciously indie material, in that it reminded me of somewhat similarly themed gems such as “Rushmore” (1998), “Igby Goes Down” (1998) and “Tadpole” (1998) – and all of these films are generational descendants of “The Graduate” (1966).

The protagonists of the former three films were eccentric, mildly rebellious, anxious but empathetic teenagers engaging in possibly romantic entanglements with older women, while Raiff’s Andrew is, like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock, a recent college grad who is eccentric, mildly rebellious, anxious but empathetic and has a crush on an older woman.

At the age of 22, Andrew sports the kind of beard usually favored by middle-aged men and has a slightly awkward, grows-on-you handsomeness (he could play Adam Scott’s son). Andrew has gone through college, but he has absolutely no idea what he wants to do with his life, so he works a soul-crushing job behind the counter at a fast-food joint called Meat Sticks, pines over a girlfriend who has moved to Barcelona and apparently has moved on from him – and still shares a bedroom in Jersey with his 10-years-younger brother, David (Evan Assante), in the home of their stepfather, Greg (Brad Garrett), whom they call “Stepdad Greg,” and their mother (Leslie Mann), who is coping with bipolar disorder and is fiercely protective of her sons.

Whatever dreams Andrew might have had as a kid, he’s definitely NOT living those dreams.

Chaperoning his brother to one of what appears to be an endless medley of bar and bat mitzvahs in the neighborhood, Andrew meets Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), a new student at David’s school who is autistic, and Lola’s mother, Domino (Dakota Johnson), who had Lola at a young age and has raised her on her own but is now engaged to a lawyer named Joseph (Raul Castillo), whom we won’t meet until much later in the story because he spends most of his time in Chicago working on a big case.

As Lola sits in a corner, wearing oversized headphones and working a puzzle, Andrew makes it his mission to get her on the dance floor – and he does it with such sincerity and utterly without condescension, and that’s the moment we’re taken with him, as is Domino. She asks Andrew if he wouldn’t mind babysitting for Lola from time to time, and that could be weird but it’s not. It’s just … something that happens, and something that brings Andrew and Domino close, and as to whether that evolves into a romance, I’ll leave it to you to discover. Suffice to say as a writer, the 25-year-old Raiff has an impressive skill set that enables him to simultaneously embrace certain cliches while saying something fresh.

For all of Andrew’s admirable qualities – he’s a fantastic older brother to David, and even his unwarranted teasing of Stepdad Greg is laced with an undercurrent of respect for how much Greg loves his mom – he can also be kind of a jerk when his feelings are hurt, or he feels underappreciated. He’s hired as a host for the aforementioned slew of bar/bat mitzvahs, and he has a knack for getting the party started, as they say, but he has a bad tendency to drink too much at these events. Not good, Andrew. This leads to some borderline slapstick hijinks and some major laughs, and also a great moment of triumph for Stepdad Greg, who deserves just such a moment.

Raiff and cinematographer Christina Dunlap serve up appealing visuals throughout, giving the film an authentic look (with Pittsburgh filling in for Jersey) but also some appropriately lush, saturated-colors moments when Andrew sees Domino in a certain light, so to speak. Mann delivers beautifully nuanced work, though the screenplay doesn’t delve too deeply into her character’s condition, while young actors Burghardt and Assante are utterly likable and real. Even the smaller parts, e.g., Odeya Rush as a beautiful former classmate of Andrew’s who is also treading water career-wise and is probably a better match for Andrew than Domino, are strongly written and well-acted.

Johnson continues her string of wonderful performances in quality films (“The Peanut Butter Falcon,” “The High Note,” “The Lost Daughter”) with luminous work here, playing a woman who is almost unbearably sad and lonely at times, but doesn’t really have the luxury of indulging in that, because she has a daughter who needs her every waking moment. As an actor, Raiff has an easy, comfortable screen presence. To be sure, he gives himself a plethora of terrific lines and maybe a few too many adoring close-ups – but you can’t blame a guy for directing himself to the cusp of stardom, can ya?

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