Review: ‘Cha Cha’ is poignant, surprising coming-of-age tale

The glow sticks. The neon lanyards. DJs playing wildly inappropriate songs. The mocktails, the tipsy grown-ups, the awkward adolescent kisses in photo booths.

Finally, a feature film set on the suburban bar mitzvah party circuit.

But there’s more than just cleverly observed cultural comedy at play in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” the second feature by writer-director Cooper Raiff, who also stars in this poignant and accomplished coming-of-age tale about the years right after college — when you’re trying to figure out not just what to do, but who to be.

And it’s not just Raiff’s character, a newly minted college grad who earns money as a “party starter” at bar mitzvahs, who’s coming of age. With a lovely, touching turn by Dakota Johnson as a troubled young mother, the film is a twofer, looking at two people grappling with change at vastly different stages of life. Can they help each other? Do they even belong together?

Certainly the chemistry is there. Johnson, who seems to be getting better with each film, adds depth to the recent work we’ve seen and also, deliciously, gets to play the older woman. (She’s also a producer on the film). As for Raiff, with his rakish yet goofy good looks and Donny Osmond smile, he’s so natural in his own words that it seems he must be channeling his own life as main character Andrew. But then we recall that while Andrew can barely hold down a fast-food job, Raiff is winning Sundance prizes (this film won the festival’s audience award.)

The title, by the way, comes from the 2000 party anthem “Cha Cha Slide,” that infectious line dance number that’s a reliable staple at bar or bat mitzvah parties, proms and more (“Cha cha now y’all.”). Raiff himself, though not Jewish, spent almost every weekend on the bar mitzvah circuit when he was 13 and growing up in Dallas, and let’s just say the man knows his way around a candle-lighting ceremony.

We begin with a flashback to a 13-year-old Andrew, at a bar mitzvah of course, who develops a deep crush for the adult female “party starter” — the one who gets kids dancing — and declares his love in the parking lot, only to be left heartbroken: “I’m old,” she says.

Ten years later, Andrew’s just graduated Tulane, and trying to answer the question every onscreen graduate has been asked since, well, “The Graduate”: What now? His girlfriend has a Fulbright to Barcelona but doesn’t seem keen for him to tag along.

So he’s living at home with his supportive mom (a perfectly cast Leslie Mann) and her annoying husband (Brad Garrett), working at a fast-food joint called Meat Sticks, and sharing a room with his middle-school brother who’s smack in the middle of bar mitzvah season. Accompanying his brother to a party one night, he finds a way to get all the kids dancing, and soon the moms are drafting him to become an official party starter.

More importantly, Andrew also meets Domino (Johnson), a young mom with an autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Resigned to watching her 14-year-old daughter play with a Rubik’s Cube while the other kids party, Domino is delighted when Andrew finds a way to get Lola dancing, too.

The next party doesn’t go so well — Andrew gets drunk on vodka, throws around some inappropriate cuss words and ends up getting kicked out. Lola and Domino, too, have a very bad night, and Andrew ends up at their house later, deepening the connection with both mother and daughter.

But Domino is engaged to Joseph, a lawyer with a gruff exterior who spends a lot of time out of town. Andrew is convinced that Joseph is wrong for Domino and that he, despite the decade in age difference, is her soul mate — even her rescuer. For Domino, who’s clearly drawn to Andrew, it isn’t quite so simple. Her life has long been defined by the needs of her daughter, and always will be. A new “soul mate” won’t change that.

Raiff’s writing and direction keep the action moving crisply, and he knows his world — set not in Dallas but in Livingston, New Jersey — very well. The film is also beautifully cast, from the adults down to the adorable, mop-headed Evan Assante as younger brother David. As Lola, the talented Burghardt, who is autistic herself, is a wonderful find.

A bar mitzvah is the time when tradition says one becomes a man. For Andrew, the symbolism is obvious — caught somewhere between childhood and adulthood, what kind of man will he choose to become? The movie has some unexpected answers. Whether they work for you or not, there’s charm and talent to spare and some very appealing performances to ease the way. Real smooth, as the song says.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth,” an Apple release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for language and some sexual content.” Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.

MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires parent or adult guardian.

Follow Jocelyn Noveck on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JocelynNoveckAP

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