“Cha Cha Real Smooth.”
The romantic dramedy, about a floundering college grad-turned-bar mitzvah party starter (Cooper Raiff), is named for a lyric in DJ Casper’s dancefloor staple “Cha Cha Slide.” Raiff, who also wrote and directed the film, initially toyed with titles like “The Jig Conductor” and “No Grinding.”
“But nothing felt big enough to also be about this coming-of-age story,” Raiff, 25, explains. “And then I convinced myself that ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ was great, because that’s the part of the song where you do your own dance. That felt meaningful in some way, but really, it’s a silly title.”
Set in New Jersey, “Cha Cha” (in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ Friday) follows burgeoning party host Andrew (Raiff) as he strikes up a friendship with a soon-to-be-married mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her autistic teenage daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).
What to watch this weekend:Pixar’s ‘Lightyear,’ Netflix’s ‘Spiderhead,’ ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’
The movie premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival in January, where it picked up the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, one of the festival’s top prizes. It was quickly scooped up for $15 million by Apple, which successfully campaigned its 2021 Sundance acquisition “CODA” to three Oscar wins in March, including best picture.
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Initially, Raiff envisioned the film would take place at a university, with Andrew falling for his slightly older professor. But he says the idea felt “gross,” so he shifted to the world of bar and bat mitzvah parties that he fondly remembers from middle school.
“I’m not Jewish, but I went to a school that was heavily Jewish,” says Raiff, a Dallas native. “In 7th grade, I was going to a service and a party every Saturday.”
“Cha Cha” still has a May-December romance between Andrew and Domino: The two flirt over popsicles and steal kisses during late-night heart-to-hearts, while her lawyer fiancé (Raúl Castillo) is away. But their dynamic is ultimately much more complex than a fling, as they help each other move into the next stages of their lives.
“Andrew and Domino have the kind of relationship I find to be so poignant: when you meet somebody you feel you’ve known forever and will know forever, but the reality is you’re probably not going to,” says Johnson, who is also a producer of the film. “Sometimes people come in as a catalyst for something else, but in the initial moment you think, ‘Oh, God, maybe this is real love and real soulmates.’ ”
“Cha Cha” is also refreshing in its depiction of Lola, who bonds with Andrew after Domino hires him as a babysitter of sorts. Before shooting started, Raiff met frequently over Zoom with Burghardt, who is autistic, so he could get her input and rewrite scenes to ensure Lola’s portrayal was more authentic. In turn, she brought a sharp sense of humor and maturity to the character.
“When we watched Vanessa’s audition, it was like, ‘She’s the heart of the movie. Let’s just try to keep up with her,’ ” Raiff says. “We changed the role entirely, and she really informed a lot.”
For Burghardt, who was discovered during a nationwide search for actresses on the autism spectrum, it felt like a true collaboration.
“I’m very opinionated, so I gave him a lot of answers,” Burghardt says. She was impressed reading an excerpt from the script for her audition, because Lola “wasn’t being used as a device to get anyone else anywhere. It was just a scene about her and her life, and I’d never seen that before with an autistic character. We’re either not being included or being used to service someone else, but it was just about how she felt in the moment.”