Cooper Raiff’s sophomore feature film, Cha Cha Real Smooth, is more or less an extended epilogue of his wonderfully, comfortably contained debut, S#!%house. If that coming-of-age film was about the awkward, sensitive kid in all of us trying to adjust to early adulthood, then Cha Cha Real Smooth brings all those anxieties about being in your early 20s to bear, one dramedy beat at a time.
Raiff himself plays Andrew, a confident, extroverted college grad living back at home with his mother (Leslie Mann), stepfather (Brad Garrett), and stepbrother David (Evan Assante). Stuck in life and far too prone to falling in love quickly, Andrew has the classic problem of focusing on everyone else having a good time and putting themselves out there, even though he clearly struggles to take his own advice.
While hanging out with his stepbrother at one of many summer bar mitzvahs, Andrew’s life collides with a woman in her 30s named Domino (Dakota Johnson, who also co-produced the film) and her autistic daughter, Lola (newcomer Vanessa Burghardt). Because Andrew hits it off with Lola as a temporal party starter, Domino hires him to be her sitter, and the two grow closer despite their clear age difference.
At first glance, Cha Cha Real Smooth has the rhythms and visual cues of most other Sundance films trying to break through the noise with poignant dramas about people getting through life in quirky, memorable ways. This is one of those films, sure, but when you go deeper, Raiff is clearly searching for something more relevant and hard-hitting than the typical platitudes about getting your act together and growing up and forging your own path.
When it comes down do it, Andrew is a bumbling, emotional mess of a human being with enough built-in cringe to power one of his own parties, but he’s presented in such a believable way. That is, the film goes a long way in setting him up as a person who charms and disarms people before ostensibly letting them all down, or so he might think. He crumbles under the pressure and expectations he doesn’t even really ask for but welcomes in quietly.
Two films now under his belt, Raiff has a knack for authentically capturing the confusion and bewilderment a lot of young men face at this bizarre, transitional period of life, when you don’t know who you are and neither does the cultural world around you. You’re told what not to do, but it can seem like no one has any idea what you should do. Or if it’s even proper to ask for help without getting shamed for displaying that amount of vulnerability. He also does all of this without taking cheap aim at the usual targets of toxic masculinity. In this film’s context, there’s really no need.
I can easily see some people sniffing at this film as some kind of supposed ego trip for Raiff himself based on some of the cliff notes pertaining to what goes on in the story. Not to be defensive on the film’s behalf (mainly because it doesn’t need my help, certainly), but Cha Cha Real Smooth is absolutely in on its own gag about a young man who wants everyone to think he has it all together, only to realize that even the world can see him for what he truly is. A work in progress at best. It’s up to him to decide that’s OK.
Much can and should be made about the warm performances, foot-tapping needle drops, and generally affirming attention to these characters overall. But the true heart of the film is the tender bond between Andrew and David, and where it eventually grows over the course of all the drama, setbacks, and heartbreak. In that sense, Cha Cha Real Smooth almost never trips over its own feet.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is out Friday, June 17 on Apple+. Watch the trailer below.
This review was originally published during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.