‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’: Cooper Raiff Grows up in His Second Feature
Young writers are often told to write what they know, and 25-year-old filmmaker Cooper Raiff has taken this to heart once again with his second feature, the coming of age dramedy “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” with great results. While his first film, “Shithouse,” took place on a college campus, the follow-up film, which also stars Raiff, follows a young man, Andrew, in the months following his graduation. Both of Raiff’s characters mature through their relationships with women, and this time he connects with two ladies, thirtysomething Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her autisitc teen daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). What starts off as a sweet friendship quickly turns sticky after Andrew and Domino start to develop feelings for each other, despite her being engaged to lawyer Joseph (Raúl Castillo).
Despite having just graduated from a prestigious university, Tulane, with a degree in marketing, Andrew has no goals beyond saving up enough money to visit his Fulbright scholar girlfriend, Mya (Amara Pedroso Saquel), in Barcelona. He ends up returning to New Jersey and moving in with his mother (Leslie Mann) and his stepfather, Greg (Brad Garrett). While Andrew is generally good-natured, he has a lot of resentment towards Greg, even though we never really see him being horrible to his stepson, just getting on his case a little to earn a more steady income. It’s a reasonable concern, as Andrew’s only job is a part-time one at the mall food court, that is until one fateful night when he escorts his 12-year-old brother, David (Evan Assante), to a bat mitzvah. There, he meets Domino and Lola, and he is immediately drawn to them, and the feeling is mutual. After betting Domino that he can get Lola on the dance floor, he succeeds massively, causing other parents to notice, commencing his career as a party starter, a person who is hired to get guests moving at bar/bat mitzvahs and other parties.
Domino, meanwhile, hires him to babysit Lola. It’s heartening to watch as he earns her trust by respecting her boundaries and having open communication. His knack for talking to young people without being condescending also endears him to David, who is navigating a first love. Around this time, he realizes his relationship with Maya is over and begins hooking up with Macy (Odeya Rush), an old friend from high school with whom he also commiserates.
But the heart of the film is Andrew’s relationship with Domino. Having been a mom so young, she missed out on what he is going through post-college, as well as the opportunity to date fun, sweet young men like him. As a mother with a special needs daughter, she understandably yearns for security, and Joseph provides that, although to Andrew, he seems to be another version of Greg. While Andrew is skittish around male authority, he has a great reverence for mothers. His admiration for Domino soon turns into something deeper, which she also expresses, and the quiet scenes in which they are just sitting around talking are beautiful to watch.
Raiff isn’t a particularly amazing actor and the plot of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” isn’t necessarily original. However, Raiff, with his disarming performance, pairs very well with Johnson, who is understated and heartbreaking here. Raiff’s passion for the story he tells shines through until the bittersweet, but mostly sweet, end. He also has some great moments with Mann, although her character, who is dealing with a mental illness, is a little too sweet. We all love a supportive mother, but she borders on saintly.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” releases June 17 on Apple TV+ and in select theaters.