I wasn’t sure what to make of a movie called Cha Cha Real Smooth, but when I learned that it won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival it earned my attention. Now I’m a proselytizer for the film and its talented writer-director-star Cooper Raiff. It’s well worth seeking out as it debuts Friday on Apple TV+.

Raiff’s small-town protagonist isn’t easily described. At the age of 22 he’s still living at home with his mom (the wonderful Leslie Mann) and searching for his path in life. He’s a people-pleaser who has a facility for getting a party going and manages to turn that into a job. Then he meets a gangly, autistic teenage girl (Vanessa Burghardt) and reaches out to help her, mainly by being a friend and protector. He asks nothing in return, but this sincere relationship becomes complicated when he develops feelings for her young, beautiful mother (Dakota Johnson).

In most other movies, this would lead in one of several equally predictable directions. But Cha Cha Real Smooth is decidedly not formulaic. As Raiff contends with a dramatic disruption in the status quo of his life he shows us facets of his character that make him even more impressive. A climactic scene inside a car on a rainy day becomes a tour-de-force for this young actor/filmmaker.

Having several well-known actors in the cast (Johnson, Mann, Brad Garrett) may help sell this modest indie title to wary viewers but after seeing it I predict that people will be reacting as I did, talking about the wondrous achievements of Cooper Raiff. I’m glad that appearing on a major streaming service will bring this superior piece of work to a large audience worldwide.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024