With his first feature, Shithouse, twenty-four-year-old writer-director-actor Cooper Raiff took the college coming-of-age movie and showed a clear gift at both personalizing shared experiences and revitalizing the clichés that tend to make us think that we’re tired of ourselves. It was the gentlest of rom-coms too, displaying a homesick college freshman who couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of how the rest of his classmates were having such a good time. It was a movie that knew that growing up can be quite a lonely process, but one that most people only feel like they have to go through on their own. For his second feature, Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff returns to a similar subject matter with just as much honesty and empathy, but noticeably and perceptively showing a realization of how the people around us can help us figure out who we are.
In his comfortably uncool fashion, Raiff returns to star in this one, and we first meet his character, Andrew, when he’s twelve-years-old at a Bar mitzvah as he quickly gains a crush on one of the party starters. But, most noticeably, it’s not her looks that enchants the young man, it’s that he spies her having a very serious phone call on a break before returning to the dance floor with a plenty of joy on her face as if nothing had happened; her ability to compartmentalize her pain in order to lift everyone else’s spirits around her. And as a child of a bipolar mom (Leslie Mann), Andrew innately feels a calling to protect older women from a world that’s happy to leave them behind at the first inconvenience — that party-starter being no different from him. So while tween Andrew won’t get to save the twentysomething party starter he meets that fateful night, it’s mightily clear, consciously or not, he’ll always carry her in his heart.
When we catch up with him ten years later, Andrew is a fresh college grad who’s so caught up with everyone else around him that he’s completely lost track of himself and what he might want. For now, he works at a fast food restaurant in a mall food court, largely because he’s putting most of his energy towards compensating for his awkward step-dad (Brad Garrett) and looking out for his little brother David (Evan Assante) that it might as well be a full-time job. Of course, Andrew might be the only one who doesn’t see that, just as he’s the only who doesn’t understand that his Barcelona-bound girlfriend isn’t waiting on him. It’s only after he accompanies David to a lame bar mitzvah and single-handedly rescues it from the wall DJ that Andrew considers how he may very well be suited for his own career as a party starter.
But there’s almost a faint unrelenting quality to the way that Andrew goes out of his way to put a smile of someone’s face. But it’s the kind of extroversion that isn’t at all twee, as Raiff’s approach is very unfussy, a degree of restraint that becomes all the more impressive when Andrew starts fixating on a gorgeous older woman who seems like she could use a little help. That woman is Domino (a great Dakota Johnson), and in reality she’s far too powerful to be confused for some damsel in distress, in fact the stunning and possibly single twenty-nine-year-old with an adorable twelve-year-old autistic kid feels almost intangibly mythic to someone like Andrew. But it’s through Domino’s daughter Lola (an endearing Vanessa Burghardt) that Andrew comes into their lives, as he starts babysitting for Lola when the opportunity strikes, and sparks an unexpected friendship with her mom — even finding himself sharing a few late nights alone with Domino as a result.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is a film as conflict-avoidant as any of its characters, and Raiff maintains the relaxed naturalism on which he built Shithouse even in the presence of bigger stars who might lead audiences to have more dramatic expectations. But sexual tension can be the greatest of special effects for a movie that knows how to use it, and the process of figuring out what Andrew and Domino want from each other is more than enough to give this light movie a pulse. There’s a palpable charge between them, and yet they’re also both people who are so defined by taking care of other people that they have absolutely no idea what to do in a situation where they both need something for themselves. All of their one-on-one scenes seemingly draw less from a “will they or won’t they?” type of rom-com tension, and more from a “do they want to or not?.” In lesser hands, this material could easily devolve into an absolute orgy of wincing, but Raiff infuses such emotional honesty into every scene that Cha Cha Real Smooth becomes as comfortable to watch as Andrew is to know. While this movie doesn’t really stretch Raiff into new territory as an actor, he still embodies the wide-eyed vulnerability of a wayward and extroverted twentysomething better than just about anyone.
Much like Shithouse, Cha Cha Real Smooth recognizes how such a unfiltered type of personality can be a double-edged sword. If the whole movie around him starts to feel awfully slight — in a Sundance movie sort of way — it’s nice to see a young filmmaker bring the stars to him instead of straining to reach their level. This is a story about two people lost in the same limbo at very different points in their lives, and it’s made all the more affecting because Raiff has the patience and maturity to let his characters map their own way forward. Continuing his refreshingly honest streak, Cooper Raiff, with Cha Cha Real Smooth, once again shows his perceptive and endearing eye for capturing the anguish and delight of entering adulthood.
Cha Cha Real Smooth premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It’s currently seeking distribution.