Cha Cha Real Smooth

Cha Cha Real Smooth

2022, R, 107 min. Directed by Cooper Raiff. Starring Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burghardt, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 17, 2022

It's a truth universally accepted that your early 20s suck, and they may suck now more than they have in quite a while. The post-college blues have become urgent, with a sense that if you don't know what you're doing after graduation, then you're doing life wrong. And that's all after you navigated the trauma of going to college in the first place – a stress carefully depicted by writer/director/star Cooper Raiff in his 2020 festival smash Shithouse.

In Cha Cha Real Smooth, he leaps ahead into that post-graduation quagmire as Andrew (Raiff as his own lead again). He's back home in New Jersey with no direction and a lousy job, but at least he's a party starter. He's the guy who can get a bar or bat mitzvah going, which may not sound like much of a skill set but boy does it keep you in demand with Jewish moms desperate not to have the dance floor be empty when they've spent a fortune on venue rental. It's at one of those events that he meets Domino (Johnson), single mom to Lola (Burghardt).

Post-graduation is also the first time in your life when you really have to engage with people not your age, and everyone in Cha Cha Real Smooth is dealing with being a little out of their age range. Andrew's great with younger teens but short on adult friends. Domino's younger than every other mom around and while she absolutely dotes on Lola, young parenthood meant she never got the carefree 20s that she sees Andrew both wasting and representing. As for Lola, her profound autism means she's three years older than everyone in her class. Meanwhile Andrew can't help sniping at stepdad Greg (Garrett) and the age difference between him and his mom (Mann). It's less a theme than an undercurrent, one subtly set up by Andrew getting the knockback in an excruciatingly awkward but identifiable opening sequence.

It's scenes like this at which Raiff excels, those little personal dramas that stick in your mind years after they happen, those moments on which you gain perspective in hindsight but just feel huge at the time. Those kind of scenes allow him to veer away from an obvious three-act structure, instead constructing the story in almost a mosaic fashion, of anecdotes and moments, character progression rather than plot beats.

Cha Cha Real Smooth shows a maturation in the young filmmaker since Shithouse, but not in an ostentatious way. It's low-key and observational, and his Andrew is immature in all the right ways for a depiction of a 22-year-old. There's no self-indulgence in the part. Equally, Johnson is given real space to play with Domino's position as the "older woman" without ever falling into Mrs. Robinson tropes. There's no judgment here, just deep compassion for an impossible situation.

And that's the funny thing about growing up. Sometimes it's not about getting it right. Sometimes it's just about not making the same mistake twice. If Raiff's first film was about two neurotic characters learning to get out of their own heads, then Cha Cha Real Smooth is a tenderly bittersweet story about a couple learning to use theirs.

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Cha Cha Real Smooth, Cooper Raiff, Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burghardt, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett

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