Film Review – Cha Cha Real Smooth
Cha Cha Real Smooth
Here’s a piece of advice: One’s life does not need to be set in stone by age 22. Where some people know exactly where their paths will take them once they step out of college, others spend their youth trying to figure out what they want to do. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. We are not the same person at 22 than we are at 62 – we change and grow and move in tangents all the time. The beauty of life is in its spontaneity, in the possibility that anything can happen at a moment’s notice. Our job is to be aware when those opportunities come and to make the most out of them. Having a plan is great but adapting to what life throws at you has its benefits also.
Andrew (Cooper Raiff) – the protagonist of Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022) – is amid a quarter life crisis. Fresh out of college, Andrew finds himself adrift. The person he thought he would spend the rest of his life with has packed up and moved to Europe. He lives with his mom (Leslie Mann) and stepfather (Brad Garrett) and shares a bedroom with his kid brother David (Evan Assante). He works a dead-end job at a hot dog stand. Things are at a standstill for Andrew, until he attends a Bar Mitzvah and livens up the crowd during the reception. Soon enough, several Jewish parents approach Andrew offering money to be the “party starter” at their kid’s upcoming celebration.
Along with being the star, Raiff also shoulders writing and directing duties. His sense of dialogue and visual eye (in coordination with cinematographer Cristina Dunlap) creates a visceral, immediate sensation. We see things through Andrew’s point of view, with a heightened reality as people move and dance in slow motion. The narrative structure and wordplay take the guise of a romantic comedy, but Raiff adds different shades to his characters. Andrew’s earnestness coincides with a gnawing cynicism. His willingness to emcee these parties come from a decent place, but when provoked he can drop an insult that cuts deeply. These conflicting sides are put to the test once Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), a mother who hires him to help care for her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).
In a lesser movie, the plot would focus on the budding romance between Andrew and Domino. Initially, the narrative does explore that avenue. Luckily, Raiff and the rest of the production has far more interesting ideas in mind. Andrew and Domino share a kindred spirit, as people who don’t have life’s answers but are simply taking things a step at a time. Andrew is just now venturing into adulthood and still harbors the immaturity of a hopeless romantic. Domino sees her life slowly crystalizing into place with a kid, fiancé, and a home of her own. She sees the possibilities she once had in Andrew, and he wants the stability coming to fruition for her. Could they work things out to be together? Maybe, but that is not what is at stake here. Andrew and Domino connect on a plane that goes beyond physical attraction. One of the best scenes involves the two talking about the idea of a “soul mate.” Can a person be destined for another or is the world made up of many soul mates? Is falling in love just a matter of being in the right place at the right time?
As a director, one of Raiff’s biggest strengths is his ability to narrow in on human behavior. He shows how little acts of kindness can reveal bigger truths. The gentle scratching of a back or the way people dance – the camera emphasizes these details to create textures both visually and dramatically. Andrew can be apprehensive about growing up, but through his actions we see a person full of compassion. He can fire an insult that offends his stepdad, but then turn around and be kind to his mother, brother, Domino, and Lola. Notice the way he sticks up for others, either be telling a joke or by listening to what they have to say. Andrew becomes a positive presence for nearly all the younger characters, revealing how much he has to offer. His misgivings about his job or love life are only a minor part of who he really is.
This is one of Dakota Johnson’s best performances. As Domino, she expresses all the varying degrees of being a mother and as a possible love interest. The fact that she doesn’t wholly fit into either category is a good thing. This is a person fully aware of the responsibility of being a parent and future spouse. But letting go of her past self proves to be difficult. Perhaps that is why she gravitates toward Andrew, because she is tempted to recall the person she once was. But life comes at you fast, and the reality that youth is fleeting hits Domino in ways that are tough and traumatizing. How Johnson balances these elements into a single person is remarkable, and she delivers all of it in a performance that is natural, organic, and free of pretense.
Cha Cha Real Smooth isn’t about good guys or bad guys, but about living, breathing people making their way through the absurdity of life. It argues that with all the worries of the world, it’s ok to step back once and awhile and enjoy things in the moment. In one scene, a character talks directly and plainly, describing how thankful they are about their childhood and all the good things that have been given to them. The scene ran the risk of being overly mushy, but Raiff’s writing, direction, and willingness to let things play on their own makes it one of the most captivating exchanges of the whole film. Being kind and showing generosity has a way of circling back.
In a season of mindless blockbusters, legacy sequels, and IP adaptations, Cha Cha Real Smooth comes in like a breath of fresh of air. At any given moment I was laughing, enthralled, or deeply moved. There are movies meant to simply pass the time and there are others that aim to involve us on a human level. This belongs in the latter.