Take a trip back to 8th grade with me. You’re a wallflower staring out at a sea of your peers, many of them far more bold than you would ever dare to be. Remember the anxiety and the excitement. The whole world was in front of you filled with seemingly infinite possibilities. In Cooper Raiff’s sophomore feature film “Cha Cha Real Smooth”, this nostalgia is essential to maximum enjoyment and understanding.
Fittingly, Cha Cha Real Smooth, opens with the film’s protagonist Andrew (played in the present by Raiff) as a 12-year-old at a Bar Mitzvah party. At the party, we quickly realize he is smitten with the much older party host and takes a chance on her. Despite being flattered, the woman rejects him, telling him quite frankly that she is “too old for him”. Dejected, Andrew sits in the back seat of the car of his mother’s partner. As his mother Lisa (Leslie Mann, This is 40) climbs into the backseat to join him, her partner inquires why, to which she responds, “my baby had his heart broken”. Five minutes into the movie the viewer is already in tune to two of the primary characters (Andrew and his mother), as well as their relationship. Raiff is a master at showing rather than telling.
The film moves forward ten years and finds a 22-year-old Andrew who is now the life of the party. Everyone around him appears to be moving on, most especially his girlfriend Maya, who is moving to Barcelona. Andrew, meanwhile, unsure of who he is or where he is going, resorts to living at home with his mother, her new husband Greg (Brad Garrett, Everybody Loves Raymond), and his younger brother David (Evan Assante), who hangs on Andrew’s every word. When David invites Andrew to a Bar Mitzvah, Andrew turns a relatively dull party into an extravagant affair enjoyed by everyone in attendance, including Domino (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Lost Daughter), a young mother, and her autistic fifteen-year-old daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Towards the end of night, Domino bets Andrew he cannot convince Lola to dance, and watches gleefully as she is proven wrong.
While Andrew walked into that Bar Mitzvah as a pathless 22-year-old with a part time job at “Meat Sticks”, he walked out of it with a job as a Party Starter at upcoming Bar Mitzvahs, and seeds of a relationship with Domino and Lola. And just like that, a bread crumb for every major thread that would encapsulate this entire film has been dropped. Andrew’s contrasting relationships with his mother and Greg and Domino and Lola are the driving forces of the film. Andrew’s relationship with David tells the viewer a lot about who he is as a person. On the outside he is headstrong and confident, but lying just underneath is a layer of uncertainty.
There are so many tidbits that are relatable and earned. When Andrew babysits Lola for the last time, she schools him on learning to enjoy being alone. Andrew is honest and admits that he is jealous of her, because he has no idea how to enjoy being by himself. As a viewer, you’re so encapsulated with every scene and interaction, you don’t even realize self-love is a theme of the movie until it smacks you in the face. The biggest compliment I can give to Cha Cha Real Smooth is that every arc and theme are earned, but also subvert the viewers expectations. Even Domino’s brooding fiancé Joseph (Raul Castillo, Atypical) is almost entirely antithetical from what you would expect from his type of character.
Which is why, amidst a sea of greatness, the star of this film is Cooper Raiff. Shithouse was as good a debut as you can have in this genre, but this follow up may somehow be better. Raiff succeeds in every aspect of the film he gets his hands on. The dialogue is perfectly crafted, the world he built is, once again, a nice combination of realistic and aspirational. It would be nice to live in this world with these people. At one point, as Andrew and Domino’s flirtation finally boils over, the camera emphasizes the ring on Domino’s ring finger. It is as if Raiff is winking at the viewer from behind the camera, reminding us that although we like these characters he created, they are doing something wrong.
Most importantly, Raiff plays Andrew so differently from how he played Alex in Shithouse it’s almost jarring. Of course, they share some similarities, they have to. Both begin the film lost and go on journeys of self-discovery. But Alex is a sad, loner. He is so afraid of diving into the deep end he doesn’t even bother trying. On the other hand, Cha Cha Real Smooth’s Andrew is confident and expressive. He’s not afraid to talk back to his step-dad, or get into the face of the parent of a rude classmate of David’s. Raiff balances charisma with uncertainty so well you have to believe he’s not merely playing a character.
Lastly, depression is a major subject handled gracefully in this film. In the second act, Andrew asks Domino what it’s like being depressed and she answers, “You do things that you think will make you feel better, but they don’t, they make you feel worse. And the things that will make me better I don’t do because I’m scared.” Depression isn’t some vague emotion you should try to paint with one broad brush. I’d imagine many people deal with different symptoms and experiences. But I do believe there is a strong correlation between self-awareness and depression. And what makes this piece of dialogue most impressive is that when you rewatch the film, you can safely bundle Johnson’s Domino’s actions into two distinct categories; the things she thinks will make her feel better, and the things that actually will. Her character’s journey, one completely separate from Raiff’s Andrew, is learning to leave behind the former choices, and begin embracing the latter. If Bo Burnham taught us anything, it’s that happiness is not binary, and Raiff appears well aware of that in how he writes his characters.
Every aspect of Cha Cha Real Smooth is a triumph. It covers a wide range of experiences and emotions. There is certainly something in there for you. Cooper Raiff looked straight into the ghost of sophomore slumps of past and laughed defiantly. His mastery in front of and behind the camera are sights to behold. Every role is cast and executed magnificently. There are parts that will make you laugh ‘til your sides hurt, but by the end, you may be crying tears of sadness. Or joy. That’s the thing about Cooper Raiff, he respects his audience, and throws a lot at them. Sometimes that can lead to a lack of focus or inability to create interest in the main characters. But, once again, Raiff has made a film where the only sense of disappointment comes when the closing credits start to roll, because you don’t want the movie to end.
Cha Cha Real Smooth premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It debuted on Apple TV+ on June 17.