Directed by Cooper Raiff — Screenplay by Cooper Raiff.
Life is complicated. You go to school, then perhaps you go to university, and then you graduate. Life is then supposed to truly begin, but you can easily find yourself in some sort of arrested development because things don’t happen overnight. You just want to get started, and the longer it takes for things to get started, the more people in your life move ahead of you in ‘the game of life’ and they start to create things without you. Fear of missing out on that early can lead to you craving stability, to desire a life that you aren’t anywhere close to having. Maybe you don’t have the right job, maybe you don’t have the right relationship, maybe the world just isn’t letting you get started. That desperation can make you envious, it can make you oblivious to your own self-worth and your own needs. Life and the people you meet along the way can also send you mixed signals. Growing up sometimes means having to navigate those without crashing on your way. Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth is about many things including those complications when life just isn’t letting you get started for whatever reason.
In Cha Cha Real Smooth, Cooper Raiff, the film’s writing-directing-acting triple threat, plays Andrew, a 22 year old recent college graduate, who has moved back home with his mother (Lisa, played by Leslie Mann), his stepdad (Greg, played by Brad Garrett), and his younger brother (David, played by Evan Assante). Embarrassed that he hasn’t got a significant job while his girlfriend is studying in Barcelona, Andrew agrees to chaperone his younger brother to a bat mitzvah. There he meets Domino (played by Dakota Johnson), a young mother in her early thirties, and her autistic daughter Lola (played by Vanessa Burghardt). Domino is immediately impressed by his attitude and personality, as well as his success in getting Lola to the dance floor at the party. His success leads to him becoming a popular party starter at bar and bat mitzvahs, and because of this he strikes up a good relationship with Domino and her daughter. But the mixed signals that Domino is sending Andrew start to mess with his head.
I’ll be honest. At first I didn’t know what to think about this movie. There were elements about it in the first half that felt a little bit too “try-hard,” but I tried to dismiss that as it was supposed to merely be an indie darling from a relatively new filmmaker. As the film went on, I grew more and more impressed by the overall message of the film, and I think it would improve upon rewatch. It should be noted that it isn’t really a straight-up comedy, but a dramedy that leans more into the late-stage coming-of-age film subgenre. I think the writing in the third act is really smart and relatable, and I really think Cooper Raiff succeeds in bringing it all together. I think most if not all of the performances are quite good. There are elements in the film that feel a little bit familiar, but, on the other hand, I also think that the film handles autism and post-university confusion — the act of being stuck in a rut — really well. Admittedly, I think you have to say that the characterization of ‘Domino’ is a little bit confused, but it also feels intentional to highlight the way her life has been a start-and-stop kind of thing.
I haven’t, at the time of writing, seen Cooper Raiff’s debut feature film, SH*THOUSE, but Cha Cha Real Smooth, his sophomore effort, is the kind of mostly really assured film that makes me want to explore his earlier work. I think what I really liked about this film was how it, in spite of some characterization issues (other than Domino’s incomplete characterization, I also think Andrew isn’t as funny as the film seems to think he is), was able to communicate things that felt really genuine. I gravitated towards this idea of being at different but equally confusing stages in your life. Although I’m older than the character (and not nearly as extroverted), I really related to this idea of how Andrew’s stunted personal and career growth after university leads to him desiring a relationship that feels fixed, as well as how this confusion makes him oblivious to his actual needs in his twenties. It was clear to me that Andrew craved companionship for a different reason than Domino did. Domino’s frustrations about how her life is defined by something she did when she was very young also feels very real and honest. They gravitate towards each other, in part, because they think the other person has captured what they think they crave, whether that be adulthood and responsibilities or freedom. And in exploring these desires they also must realize that they are forcing things that shouldn’t feel forced.
Let’s talk about performances. I think it’s a really difficult thing to act in your own film, and it’s even more of a high-wire act to actually be your film’s lead. Although I do think the charming and extroverted Andrew doesn’t always work, I think Raiff delivers a solid performance that feels real. I really liked how Raiff had he and Vanessa Burghardt play their scenes together. It feels very respectful of the autism community, and I think Burghardt really delivers a winning performance. Raiff was also lucky enough to get Dakota Johnson in his film. Johnson has proven herself to be more than just a good actress, and a breakthrough outside of cinephile circles is bound to happen sooner or later. The wider public is going to find out that she is much more than Fifty Shades of Grey. In Cha Cha Real Smooth, I think she delivers a terrific and sometimes nuanced performance. She and Raiff share some really excellent romantic tension. I also really want to highlight that even though she doesn’t get a lot to do, Leslie Mann is great here. She always makes the most out of her scenes in this film.
Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth is a charming and very relatable late-coming-of-age film that features uniformly good performances. It’s another strong indie acquisition for Apple TV+, and, dare I say it, it is as good as — or possibly even better than — Apple’s Best Picture winner, CODA.
8 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.