Now this is a real autistic movie with a real autistic actress.
In “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” we meet Andrew, a college grad in New Jersey, who’s stuck working in a crappy fast food joint, until he decides to become a Bar Mitzvah party host with the name “Jig Connector.” Before that, he accompanies his younger brother David at his Bar Mitzvah party, where he meets the young mom Domino, whose daughter Lola is autistic. He manages to bet the mom that he can get her daughter on the dance floor, and away from her seclusion. He wins.
Here’s the deal. Cooper Raiff is in his early 20s, and already proven himself to be a talented filmmaker. His breakout feature was “Shithouse,” and now, he’s written, directed, and starred in “Cha Cha Real Smooth, ” which loves Andrew and Lola. And for good reasons. Raiff balances well in front of the camera as Andrew, in the ways we see his character trying to expand his horizons.
And you recall how Sia made the fatal mistake of casting a non-autistic actress like Maddie Ziegler in the role of an autistic girl? The movie that made almost everyone’s Worst of 2021 lists? Well, Raiff made the wise decision to cast a genuine autistic actress like Vanessa Burghardt as Lola.
In the tradition of deaf actress Millicent Simonds in “A Quiet Place” and “Wonderstruck” or Troy Kotsur winning the Oscar for his role in “CODA,” I love how movies are trying to give disabled actors the right roles, instead of using amateurs who insult us. Sorry. I’m still trying to get over my hatred for “Music.” But now, let’s focus a bit on Burghardt and her character Lola.
Lola loves her hamster Jerry, getting her back scratched by her mother, and doesn’t let anyone hurt her feelings. Andrew is impressed considering he almost got in real trouble with a young bully. She doesn’t look and act like the idiot movies and shows make us to be, and I’m autistic, as you know. She’s sincere with her dialogue and tones, and she doesn’t have the obligatory tantrums, which are usually tedious. This is proof that autistic people are people.
Domino (Dakota Johnson) is engaged to the busy lawyer Joseph (Raul Castillo), but she and Andrew become good friends. She has alway been depressed, but having Lola has helped make her better, and has been afraid of romance for understandable reasons. He helps take care of Lola and they both learn to connect with each other. Johnson does some fine work when her character tries her best to overcome her sadness.
Among the supporting cast, Leslie Mann gives her most human performance since the under-appreciated “How to Be Single” as Andrew’s bipolar mother, who tries to prove to him that he can be a better person. David is also wonderfully played by Evan Assante, who receives some sucky dating tips from his older brother. And Brad Garrett has his moments as the stepfather.
Other than a few unnecessary things, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” balances both the sides of the story regarding the lead character and his new autistic friend with some good comedy and, more importantly, tenderness. Raiff is able to top himself off by knowing the stakes of how society deserves real actors with real disabilities, and by also representing a young man trying to figure out his ambitions.
Life is never that simple, and certain people need directions. Besides Lola, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” wants us to care about Andrew and what he plans to do with his life. His mom motivates him, his would-be date motivates him, and he needs some motivation. This movie has its heart in the right place with poignant material, great music, and amazing performances all around.
Take this in your pipe and smoke it, Sia!
In Select Theaters and Streaming on Apple TV+ This Friday