Cooper Raiff’s latest film is not about reaching physical maturity but an emotional one. Cha Cha Real Smooth is funny, wonderful, and heartfelt, and also happens to be refreshingly honest.
This review of the Apple TV+ film Cha Cha Real Smooth does not contain spoilers.
Cooper Raiff continues to display beautiful moments in his films that break down the walls we put around when it comes to communication in Cha Cha Real Smooth. Take, for instance, the scene between his character Andrew and Domino (played by Dakota Johnson). They have been eye-f*****g each other for weeks. Domino, in particular, keeps looking at Andrew in a way that says more in her eyes than anything she has spoken out loud. She is engaged. He is single and gently communicates his observation of her. She looks like she is holding something back. What happens next is when that barrier blocks what is right in front of you. Which leads to a connection, and that assumptions are not the same as miscommunications.
Fortune cookie logic aside, Andrew is in his early twenties and working at a hot dog establishment at the local mall. He has no direction other than drinking, getting high, and pining for his girlfriend, who is living abroad. His mother (Leslie Mann) is perfectly lovely but has a history of struggling with her manic depression. Andrew has a little brother, David (Evan Assante), and they all live in their stepfather’s house, Greg (Brad Garrett). He has graciously opened his home to Andrew, who apparently doesn’t realize he shouldn’t insult that man at his dinner table daily.
It also happens to be bar mitzvah season. Andrew takes David to the party because it’s for the little brother of his friend, Macy (Odeya Rush). The party has plateaued. The boys and girls are too shy to mingle, so Andrew gets the kids to loosen up. There, he meets Domino, the mother of a child with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD), named Lola (Vanessa Burghardt, wonderful here). She doesn’t want to dance based on her natural limit to social interactions.
Andrew wants to get her to dance, and they make a bet he can get her to do the 21st-century Brooklyn Shuffle (not really, but that would have been great). He does (by promising to buy her a MoYu 13×13 Magic Cube with the money he wins from her mother), and Domino is immediately smitten with him. Despite being engaged to her fiance, Joseph (We the Animal’s Raul Castillo). He is a lawyer whose work has taken him away from home a lot lately. Andrew immediately has an offer to be the “party starter” and a business is born.
That is the setup of Raiff’s coming-of-age comedy, his sophomore writing and directorial effort after breaking out on the scene with Sh*thouse (2020). That film was about a young man coming of age when leaving for college. This is about a man trying to find himself after graduating with a marketing degree from Tulane. These are nervous times for young people, always desperately trying to keep one foot in the past while feeling out the future. What Raiff continues to bring to his scripts is that rare male character with such a sensitive vulnerability that is a reflection of today’s modern masculinity.
Many may incorrectly point out that Raiff’s character in his first film is too similar to Cha Cha Real Smooth. The fact of the matter is that this is a mature film wrapped in a stupid kid’s childish behavior. Alex Marmquist was naive, anxious, and almost innocent. In this film, Andrew is now still a stupid kid, but at an age where he is mature enough to make adult decisions, but now has to deal with the consequences. His script is a coming-of-age infantilism comedy that is concerned with stunted growth at any age and how mental health can be easily masked. You may notice, at the 55-minute mark of the film, Domino’s speech about depression takes on greater meaning and mirrors Andrew’s own issues of depression.
Some critics are calling Cha Cha Real Smooth the best coming-of-age film in years, and even of all time. While I would tend to always check the age of the critic who makes that claim — the younger they are, the more prone one is to make such grandiose proclamations — I would never make that comparison when you have superior ones like The Graduate or modern-day classics like Moonlight, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, or Eighth Grade. However, it does have subtle revelations that sneak up on you. How depression can be there and self-medicated without the realization. How you can feel connections, even find love or soulmates with multiple people at the same time, and that’s okay. And if the film’s best scene involves Andrew and Catillo’s Joseph, some things are more important than childish indiscretions.
This is rather the point about Cha Cha Real Smooth. Manhood is not just about physical maturity, but an emotional one. Andrew is still on his path to emotional maturity and, of all people, he has a couple of examples of that finish line that become apparent to him by the end of the film. This is a wonderful, heartfelt film that also happens to be very funny and refreshingly honest at points.
I cannot wait to see what Cooper Raiff comes up with next.
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