‘If anyone sees this, I’ll be put on a watch-list,’ abjures Andrew (writer and director Cooper Raiff), a personable young Jewish man who has a knack for pushing his charm too far. Andrew has found an ideal outlet for his gift with working with people; he’s got a gig as a ‘motivational dancer’, going to parties and bar mitzvahs to get this party started as a ‘jig conductor’ with a selection of Jewish mothers guiding his hand. When we first meet Andrew, he’s plying his trade to contemporary choon The Show Goes On by Lupe Fiasco with its euphoric Modest Mouse guitar and vocal sample, so we intuitively know we’re in for a welcome warm and fuzzy feel-good drama in the vein of last year’s Coda.
Like Coda, Cha Cha Real Smooth was picked up as some low hanging fruit by Apple at Park City this year, released by Apple’s very own streaming channel. It’s an unpretentiously hip, rather charming look at the world through the eyes of a man keen to gain understanding of the world round about him, and what he finds is that the world trades in heartbreak. He fears the disapproval of his mother (Leslie Mann), and wants to be a good role to little brother David (Evan Assante). But Andrew also has his heart freshly broken, as a child in the opening scene, then as an adult by his ex, and then again the flirty yet unhappy Domino (Dakota Johnson), the depressed fiancé of a sombre lawyer (the excellent Raúl Castillo). Andrew professes love for her, but she won’t deviate from her path; could winning over Domino’s 12 year old daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) hold the key to breaking the chains of heartbreak that bind everyone Andrew knows?
Life changes you when you least expect it, and Andrew’s stuttering but ultimately successful relationship with Lola is what makes the film and breaks your heart. For once, and hopefully for ever, the taboo of not deeming people with autism fit to play themselves is broken, and Burghardt’s winning performance is a big part of what makes Cha Cha Real Smooth something of a must-see movie. Her penchant for puzzle cubes and collection of potato mashers are obvious easy-to-grasp signifiers about Lola’s condition, but the halting, genuine way that Andrew’s relationship with Lola develops creates fresh insight and a moving personal connection.
‘Sometimes I enjoy the company of an empty room,’ Lola says in her clear, resonant tones, and while Cha Cha Smooth is a feel-good movie, the pay-offs are not on the dance-floor at all; in fact, when the Cha Cha Slide song finally plays, there’s a raucous fist-fight breaking out. Andrew’s desperation to fit in with others leads him to seem insincere, to claim connections to people when he has none. But while the headstrong desires Andrew pursues lead to emotional dead ends, somehow the tenuous relationship he has with Lola deepens and provides unexpected meaning. This is a gentle, well-written, sweet-natured and agreeably personal view of growing-up, fully realised by Raiff, who ably deals himself the material for a striking leading performance. The fact that the similarly enlightened Coda was so largely unseen may have burned the fast-track to awards glory, but Cha Cha Real Smooth has got some sensational moves well worthy of anyone’s consideration.