This review of Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.
Life is filled with all manner of feelings — it’s thrilling and dull, it’s joyous and devastating — but while these emotions are commonly shared and expressed in film, one is often left sitting off to the side. Life is also scary. We’re not talking horror movie scares with killers and demons, but instead, it’s the fears we all experience at one time or another regarding relationships, our future, and more. Writer/director/actor Cooper Raiff previously explored the anxiety and terror of leaving home for the first time to attend college with his pitch-perfect debut, Shithouse (2020). He returns this year with a look at what comes next, and while Cha Cha Real Smooth isn’t actually a sequel to the earlier film its humanity, humor, and willingness to display vulnerability make it an equally affecting thematic follow-up.
Andrew (Raiff) has just graduated from college, and while his girlfriend heads to Spain for a fellowship he returns home in search of a career-minded job with a non-profit. A quick cut to him working at a mall food court shop called Meat Sticks tells us how that search is going, but he’s not about to let it get him down. He finds new inspiration when he takes his younger brother David (Evan Assante) to a Bat Mitzvah and impresses the parents when his energy and personality help bring the party to life. In addition to a new gig as a “party starter” he also meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Andrew immediately falls for both showing real kindness and attention while developing romantic interests for Domino.
The trappings for a romantic comedy are scattered all throughout Cha Cha Real Smooth, but while those beats are present it’s hardly the focus of Raiff’s story. This is more of a coming-of-age tale, a character piece, one that gifts viewers with an honest but entertaining look at struggles most of us are familiar with — but one most filmmakers don’t really touch upon. Uncertainty about what’s next is common enough, but Raiff is unafraid to let Andrew cry when things grow overwhelming. It’s not something we see from male leads all that often, and seeing someone let their guard down like this is as refreshing as it is rare. Happily, the film is also funny, sweet, and beautifully satisfying.
While Raiff’s character in Shithouse is far more fragile and anxious, Andrew appears at first to have his shit together. He initially has the confidence and indifference of youth, but he comes to see his situation — college graduate working retail, lacking a girlfriend, and sleeping on his brother’s floor — as far from ideal, and the goal he chooses to reach for is Domino. It’s an ambitious swing even if she does show a degree of reciprocation, but the age difference and her fiance (Raúl Castillo) complicate things in understandable ways.
The joy of Cha Cha Real Smooth, though, is that Andrew is more than just his romantic pursuits. He’s charismatic and kind, funny and occasionally snarky, and his compassion for others is crafted with complexities. There’s no doubt that his acts of kindness are sincere, but you get the sense they’re also a diversion for a young man unable to find his own way. They won’t stop once he does find his path, but they’ll be more pure when he’s not using them as cover for his own personal stagnation. Raiff’s performance and his Donny Osmond smile ensure both viewers and characters alike believe in him as he helps others, but his own pain isn’t buried too far beneath the goodwill.
Raiff may be the center of the film, but he’s surrounded himself with a terrific supporting cast. Johnson continues to deliver in small roles — see last year’s stellar The Lost Daughter if you haven’t yet), and she walks a fine line her as an “older” woman who knows what she wants and needs even if her actions don’t always show it. Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett play Andrew’s mom and stepfather, and each are given their own personality elements that ring true even if they’re never the focus. Assante and Burghardt suggest the next generation is going to be just fine, and Castillo turns what could have been a one-note character into something more.
Cha Cha Real Smooth doesn’t pretend to have any real answers, and it accepts its characters on that same merit. All we can do is try our best, for us and for others, but while knowing what we want is the ideal it’s okay if that isn’t always the case. Life is thrilling and dull, joyous and devastating, and sometimes it can also be pretty scary.
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