The challenge of escaping the comforting bubble of college life and entering young adulthood is a phase that is relatable to anyone in their early 20s. Cracking adulthood and performing the balancing act of being understanding and yet standing firm against the tsunami that adulthood is, however, a difficulty imperceptible to comprehend. On the one hand, you might feel you have cracked the code, and immediately, within 48 hours, you are faced with a challenge you are completely unprepared for. And that is not even considering matters of the heart.
Cooper Raiff, however, seems to have captured the niche of coming of age stories, dealing with protagonists who are allowed to be vulnerable, kind, and able to show their emotional openness when circumstances arise. His debut feature, “Shithouse,” was the story of a freshman at college and his burgeoning friendship and the pitfalls of that, escaping the bubble of home and loving parents to start venturing out on his own. In a way, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a spiritual sequel, though not in terms of narrative, as it doesn’t have anything similar other than Raiff playing the protagonist in both of his movies. Thematically, though, it is exploring the next step forward in terms of adulthood.
A 22-year-old named Andrew is fresh out of college, stuck at his New Jersey home, working as a meat-sticks vendor while harboring a desire to follow his girlfriend to Barcelona for further education as soon as he earns some money. Luck smiles at him when he accompanies his little brother at a friend’s bar mitzvah party and does an impromptu job of being a party starter so well that he is hired to be one at future bar mitzvahs. It is at that party that he strikes up a friendship with Lola, an autistic classmate of his brother Dave, played with supreme confidence by debutant Vanessa Burghardt, and Lola’s mother, Domino, played by an incandescent Dakota Johnson.
Raiff, through his two movies and especially his sophomore feature, brings a new dimension to the coming-of-age stories that have been surprisingly rare in recent years. Most coming-of-age stories are solipsistic to the point of being self-absorbed, with the protagonists’ selfishness being the primary character trait to focus on and then build out of. Raiff produces a carefully crafted character who is friendly. Kindness is the primary emotion here.
Raiff’s Andrew is a kind human being who looks after his brothers, is genuinely interested in looking after Lola with no ulterior motives, while also open enough to be emotionally close with Domino and try to remain open-minded in every circumstance. But what Raiff also brilliantly shows is that kindness doesn’t make Andrew’s character an omniscient figure, even though he tries very hard to maintain that image in front of his brother in terms of relationships. At the end of the day, his values don’t outweigh the fact that he is still a human being prone to making mistakes and tempted to make life-changing decisions simply because there is a chance of him regaining or rejuvenating his failing love life. He also has a tumultuous relationship with his stepdad, making jokes and barbs about his profession while simultaneously protecting himself by projecting a “too cool for school image.”
The shining moments in the movie are the ones which Andrew shares with Lola and especially Domino. Raiff and Johnson share dazzling chemistry that shines on screen. Within Andrew Domino finds a person she can relate to and unburden herself with, and as she says in the movie, she is comfortable with him because it opens up avenues of possibility. However, what “Cha Cha Real Smooth” manages to deftly show is the difference between the demands and hard choices of adulthood and reality, and how much it shatters the rosy image and possibility that occur with attraction and growing love. However, Raiff also shows a delicate touch in recognizing the existence of emotions far deeper than romantic love or passion. It’s the connection forged by two like-minded people who feel close to each other and somehow give credence to the meaning of soulmates.
The ironic moment which struck me was when Cooper says that, unlike Domino, who can have only four soulmates, Andrew could have 1,200 of them. That shows Andrew’s character has a tendency to be trusting, warm, and giving to anyone, regardless of reciprocation, but it also shows an increasing self-awareness in knowing that openness could only harm him. This is why the ending, while heartbreaking, is also very much an evolution, a hopeful ending because this is a relationship and a soulmate who reciprocated with Andrew, who realized the value in Andrew’s warmth and giving nature and gave back as much as she could, with her trust.
From a technical standpoint, Raiff uses peppy but evocative indie tracks, which makes the scenes flow smoothly, like Andrew drifting through life and figuring himself out. However, where “Cha Cha Real Smooth” falters, albeit barely, is in its development of a few tertiary characters. While all of these secondary and tertiary characters are cast well and act supremely well, unlike most rom-coms you see, it does fall into the traditional rom-com trap.
The character of Joseph, Domino’s fiancé, is introduced as a hotshot lawyer and a person whom Domino is very much interested in leading a new future with, but like a viewer invested in Andrew’s life, we also inadvertently want Andrew and Domino to be together, but the script doesn’t give us a reason to hate Joseph simply because his character isn’t fleshed out. Similarly, Andrew’s stepdad, Greg, is seen as a person whom Andrew hates, but there isn’t a sufficient reason given by the screenplay to hate his character, or root for Andrew beyond “adults are stuck-up who are cramping Andrew’s style.” It is not a big negative, but it does manage to stand out in a movie that is so focused on the exploration of human nuances and relationship complexities.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is, however, another feather in Cooper Raiff’s cap. Raiff truly manages to normalize emotionally available and unselfish protagonists on the screen who are open to crying and talking about their feelings in rom-coms and coming-of-age movies without the risk of being judged or laughed at by the screenplay itself. It is also a surprisingly tender and non-judgemental look at the difficulties of navigating young adulthood and soulful connections, helped ably by Raiff’s direction and, of course, Dakota Johnson’s wonderful performance.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a 2022 Romance Drama film written and directed by Cooper Raiff.