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The Graduate

Sundance Institute

Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022)

In her first book, Mindy Kaling has a section where she discusses romantic comedy tropes, one of which is the Typical Mother Character. To paraphrase Ms. Kaling, basic math makes it clear that the Typical Mother Character became a parent at an uncomfortably young age, which means that her backstory can’t really be discussed, because it is automatically more interesting than anything happening in the romantic comedy. Writer-director Cooper Raiff, who also stars in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” evidently took this statement as a challenge. His incredibly charming movie is about how an open-hearted young man and a jaded older (but not much older) woman suddenly find themselves with an unexpected potential romantic situation, and the all-encompassing question of what they are going to do about it.

Andrew (Mr. Raiff) has just graduated from Tulane University and retreated home to New Jersey while he gets himself together for proper adulthood. He is a cheerful young man, brimming with enthusiasm for everyone he meets, but that doesn’t necessarily give your life direction. In the meantime, he is working at the mall food court and sleeping on the floor of his little brother David’s (Evan Assante) room, in the house his mother (Leslie Mann, making a major impression in a minor part) shares with her dickish new husband, known to all as Stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett, in his usual scene-stealing mode). As David is 13, the social whirl in their house involves going to a lot of bar mitzvahs. Andrew chaperones David at one which is a little dull, but in no time at all gets up on the dance floor and single-handedly makes the night a roaring success. Since all the mothers in attendance are impressed, a career opportunity is born.

One of the shyer attendees at this bar mitzvah is David’s autistic classmate Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who is alone in a corner under the watchful eye of Typical Mother Character Domino (Dakota Johnson). Andrew unsurprisingly introduces himself to Domino, but in the course of their chat a $300 bet comes into play as to whether Andrew can get Lola to dance. He succeeds instantly, so flabbergasting Domino that she’s reduced to tears, and opening the window to a second opportunity. At a later bar mitzvah Domino finds herself in an uncomfortable and unpleasant situation. Andrew discovers her distress, immediately rallies David and Lola’s assistance in age-appropriate fashion, and ends up in Domino’s living room as a shoulder to cry on. Andrew is delighted at this unexpected connection and thrilled to have made two new friends, which sounds insufferable but is somehow completely appealing; you really would be happy having Andrew babysit your kid, or listen to all your troubles. Mr. Raiff is unusually charming, which is tough to fake, and the enthusiasm Andrew brings to his life is very easy to lean into. From her side, Domino has made her first friend in a really long time, someone who isn’t fazed by her difficult child or judgmental of her choices. Ms. Johnson’s stillness and quietude suddenly gains extra depth as Domino relaxes with this new person she’s realized she can implicitly trust. It’s so genuine, and genuinely unexpected, that it’s no real surprise Andrew immediately is all in. But Domino knows life is rarely so simple.

As the summer progresses and the bar mitzvahs continue the charming boy grows into a charming young man, meaning this is a coming-of-age film dressed in romantic comedy clothes. That is absolutely not a complaint, but the combined tropes come thick and fast toward the end, which dampens the electric combination of Ms. Johnson and Mr. Raiff together. It would also have been more interesting if there wasn’t an external obstacle to their success, and I am not talking about Macy (Odeya Rush), who’s in a similar life limbo to Andrew’s. But those are quibbles. This is a big-hearted crowd-pleaser that knows how hard you have to work, how lucky you have to be, and how thoroughly you must guard that luck to live a happy life. And yes, the “Cha-Cha Slide” does come into it.


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