Now on Apple TV+, Cha Cha Real Smooth is young upstart filmmaker Cooper Raiff’s second feature, the follow-up to 2020’s quietly well-received Shithouse. OK, so maybe movie titles aren’t Raiff’s strong suit, but he has many other superlative qualities: He produces, writes, directs, co-edits and stars in Cha Cha, a truly charming rom-coma, and that’s not a typo, because the film is a romantic coming-of-age comedic drama, and “rom-comoacd” just doesn’t glide off the tongue. Raiff and Dakota Johnson anchor the movie, respectively playing an aimless recent college grad and an older woman/youngish mom who make each other’s lives rather complicated – as these situations always tend to be, of course.
The Gist: We meet Andrew as a 12-year-old: One minute he’s smitten, and the next he’s heartbroken. That’s what happens when you’re 12 and ask out the 20-ish woman you’re smitten with. It just can’t be. TEN YEARS LATER, Andrew (Raiff) has just dotted his last i and crossed his last t for college. His girlfriend is off to Barcelona, and he maybe wants to go with her but she doesn’t seem to want him to. He’d love to get a job at a non-profit, but ends up being a corn dog sales and marketing advocate representative agent behind a cash register at a mall food court joint called Meat Sticks, while he lives at home with his mother (Leslie Mann), her boyfriend (Brad Garrett) and 12-year-old brother David (Evan Assante). Not ideal. What did he study in college? We don’t know. But it’s 2022 and that just doesn’t seem as important as it used to be. College, I mean. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to go, but it seems like kind of a crock, doesn’t it?
Anyway. Andrew’s kind of a roll-with-it kind of guy, e.g., when he attends a bat mitzvah and finds a way to transform a deadass party into a live-ass party with a packed dance floor by goosing the DJ and jumpstarting the children, all the Jewish moms want to hire him to be their “motivational dancer” on the mitzvah circuit. Maybe this could be a career. Lucrative, I dunno, but he’s good at it and the mitzvahs in this Jewish community come fast and furious. He can talk to people. He’s a persuader. A giver. An uplifting, earnest guy. You gotta love him.
But that’s not important. I mean, it’s important, but not as important as the people he meets at that first bat mitzvah, namely, Domino (Johnson), who looks a little too young to have a teenage daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Lola is autistic and Domino bets Andrew $300 that he can’t get her on the dance floor and guess what he does, right, he gets Lola on the dance floor. All the same people turn up at every mitzvah, so at the next one, Andrew has an opportunity to shoo bullies away from Lola and rescue Domino from, shall we say, a difficult bathroom situation, a tragic one, not a funny one, not at all. He gets Domino and Lola home safely. He’s seen both of them in states of extreme vulnerability, which makes him an insider. Domino wants Andrew to be Lola’s sitter, and he thinks that’s a good idea. Domino climbs on Andrew and kisses him, and he likes it but isn’t quite there yet, which is OK. It’s not until after this episode that he learns she’s engaged to Joseph (Raul Castillo), a Frequently Traveling Lawyer. Say it with me: DAMMIT.
Mixed messages. Confusion. Gray areas. Moral conundrums. That’s life, FFS. Andrew works the Meat Sticks counter. Andrew stirs the mitzvah children. Andrew eyeballs social media pics of his girlfriend with a guy with all-caps-necessary BICEPS. Andrew thinks about Domino and then calls an old friend, who we soon learn is one with benefits. Andrew Googles “Domino” and gets nothing but pizza. Does he even know Domino’s last name? May I suggest he try “Robinson”?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: “Cha cha” is alarmingly close to “koo koo ka-choo,” isn’t it? Cha Cha Real Smooth is a modern-day riff on The Graduate, but instead of the May/December romance, it’s more like Early-March/Mid-April.
Performance Worth Watching: Johnson’s post-50 Shades career has been creatively prolific: She was spiky and revelatory in A Bigger Splash and Suspiria. Her performances elevated Our Friend and The High Note. And The Lost Daughter (among the best films of 2021) and Cha Cha Real Smooth find her doing her strongest work. Maybe her Cha Cha character is a touch underwritten – but Raiff also seems to be giving her plenty of lead to explore Domino nonverbally, allowing us to ponder the mysteries of her pain and hard-earned sagacity. She’s alluring and complex; her expressions have rarely been so sad, or so sexy.
Memorable Dialogue: Andrew acknowledges the major stepdad vibes in the house: “Greg, I think your purpose on Earth is to make things weird.”
Sex and Skin: Light, generally PG-13-ish sexy situations, e.g., intense making out, close-ups on faces as bedsprings squeak.
Our Take: The main difference between The Graduate and Cha Cha? Boomers sit at the bottom of the pool and have an existential crisis; Gen-Zers get three jobs. Also, Benjamin Braddock passively lets life happen to him, while Andrew here actively and earnestly pursues options to further himself. Andrew’s open-book sincerity is endearing; instead of playing games, he says what’s in his head and in his heart. The difficulties many of us face on the on-ramp to adulthood are the same now as they were 50 years ago – identity struggles, finding a place for yourself in the world – but the inflection and tone have changed considerably. Andrew isn’t utterly lost, or pressured to go into PLASTICS, rather, he embraces moments, moments that he, or most like him in their early 20s, may not realize are awfully fleeting, temporary. Would Benjamin have dead-on asked Mrs. Robinson if she ever felt depressed? No f—ing way. Too passive-aggressive. But Andrew asks Domino exactly that during one of the movie’s many, many wonderful, revealing, authentic moments.
Some might interpret Raiff’s casting himself as a pretty great guy as an act of self-aggrandizement, but I recommend not buying that shallow assessment. Andrew is a proficient giver and a nurturer, but that can be a mask for his pain, too. He’s an upbeat, optimistic character wedged opposite Domino, who’s wounded and weary; you might say Andrew has more in common with the bar mitzvah teens (celebrating entry into “manhood”) while Domino, whose pregnancy seems to have forced her to age faster than she wanted, has the wisdom and perspective of someone 10 years older than she. Meanwhile, Andrew gives romantic advice to his brother, who’s on the tingly verge of his first kiss, and supports his mother, who struggles with mental illness. Is there room for Andrew the Helper to help Andrew? In one terrific, perfectly written and modulated scene, Lola tells Andrew that she often enjoys “the company of an empty room,” and in that moment, he realizes that he can’t.
On paper, Cha Cha reads like a bigger, predictably familiar comedy: young naif meets older woman, awkwardness ensues. Sometimes Raiff indulges big, silly comedy or plot contrivances, but neither sours the film. Rather, Raiff strikes a distinctively affable tone, blending bits of broad accessibility with idiosyncrasy, and he resists allowing ancillary characters to be plot devices or archetypes; even the potential stepdad and the Frequently Traveling Lawyer Fiancee have shape and dimension. It’s a smart, bittersweet film, keenly written and rich with emotionally accessible characters who follow arcs that resemble yours and mine on a grander scale, but in the details are very much their own. It’s a movie that lands like a big, warm hug.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Cha Cha Real Smooth is a winsome, character-driven dramedy from a fresh new voice. It’s clever but not too clever, heartbreaking but not devastatingly so, and very much a delightful watch.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.