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Dan Webster reviews the movie "Cha Cha Real Smooth"

The struggle to transition from adolescence to early adulthood has been a favorite theme in literature, stage and, especially, screen. Film directors from Francois Truffaut to Mike Nichols to Gillian Armstrong have done some of their best work focusing on characters maturing problematically, Nichols’ 1967 film “The Graduate” being a one of the great examples.

Writer-director Cooper Raiff is no Mike Nichols. But his film “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” which is streaming on Apple TV+, boasts one basic similarity with “The Graduate”: Both key on young men, just graduated from college, trying to figure out what comes next.

Adapted from the novel by Charles Webb, Nichols’ film follows recent university graduate Benjamin Braddock as he confronts, and is confronted by, what he sees as the shallow values of his California family and friends. Raiff, in turn, gives us Andrew (played by Raiff himself), just finished with Tulane University whose greatest ambition is to follow his girlfriend to Barcelona.

She is going there to be a Fulbright Scholar while he simply wants to be with her. And while other films have explored such a scenario with both tenderness and hopefulness – think of Cameron Crowe’s 1989 film “Say Anything” – Andrew’s intentions are more a way to put off making any serious life decisions than anything else. And because of this, chances of his succeeding are fairly slim … something that he refuses to, or simply can’t, accept.

Of course, denial is one of his basic tendencies. We know from the beginning that Andrew has a habit of falling in love with women he can’t have, often years older than he is. This may or may not have something to do with his mother (played by Leslie Mann), who is described as a manic-depressive – though we see only a loving version, living both with Andrew’s brother David (played by Evan Assante) and his stepfather (played by Brad Garrett).

Symbolic of his situation, Andrew lives with them, too, camping out on the floor of brother David’s bedroom. And while he is a supportive big brother, and a concerned son to his mother, he jousts with stepdad – someone he, for reasons that never become clear, resents. Jealousy maybe? Hard to say.

Andrew takes a job at a fast-food joint, comically called Meat Sticks, it being the only job he can find. That is until he makes an impression at a young girl’s bat mitzvah, coercing kids – including David – to hit the dance floor. This convinces some of the Jewish mothers that Andrew should become a “party starter” at other bar and bat mitzvahs.

It is at this first celebration that he meets Domino (played by Dakota Johnson) and her daughter Lola (played by Vanessa Burghardt). Lola, like the actress herself, is on the autism spectrum. Her condition shows up in the adoring love she shows for her hamster, in her obsession with potato mashers and with Rubik’s cubes – not to mention her inclination toward social isolation.

Andrew, of course is taken by Domino – not surprisingly, she is several years older – but also by Lola. And slowly the three begin to form a relationship, one marked by Andrew’s willingness to help Domino in a particular trying situation, by his true affection for Lola and despite the fact that Domino is engaged to the no-nonsense lawyer Joseph (played by Raul Castillo).

True to life, just as Andrew’s motivations aren’t always rational – their being rooted in his past life history, which is only marginally mentioned – so, too, are Domino’s. The gaze of longing that she casts toward Andrew, not to mention the occasional impulsive embrace, say a lot more about her own needs than it does about her desire to forge a meaningful adult relationship with him. In that sense, both characters are struggling to find themselves.

And few things go smoothly, what with school bullies tormenting Lola, David looking to Andrew to advise him about how to negotiate a first kiss, Domino’s engagement with Joseph, and Andrew’s own erratic nature. Even so, much of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” feels authentic, right down to its satisfying ending.

As I say, Cooper Raiff is no Mike Nichols, and his movie is no ”The Graduate.” Yet he knows all about the angst of latent adolescence, and how time and age – if given a chance – can lead to the joy of a fully functioning life.