At a certain point in our lives, we’ve fallen in love. Could happen at a young age, as it does for Andrew (Javien Mercado), at a bar mitzvah for one of his friends in school. He locks eyes with the event coordinator on the dance floor, as she is leading a group dance. Young Andrew is shy at first, afraid to confront his crush. And as he and his family are leaving, he gets the courage to bare his feelings for her, to which she is faltered, but politely turns down his offer of a date in the future. Gutted by this, his mother (Leslie Mann) consoles, assuring him this is just the first in a long life of searching for the right person to be with.
Flash forward about ten years later, Andrew (Cooper Raiff) has just graduated college at the ripe age of 22 years old. His friends are going back home, finding careers, and getting their first tastes of being fully fledged adults. Andrew works at a chain restaurant called Meat Sticks. His college fling is going overseas on a research mission, to which he would love to join her, but they both know that isn’t in the cards for Andrew. Instead, he returns home, moves back into his mother and stepfather’s (Brad Garrett) house, where he shares a room with his younger brother David (Evan Assante), and gets a part time job working at the local food court. He’s going through the motions of life, aimlessly searching for something to do that would intrigue him, while also not trying to actually rush into a proper job. In short, he doesn’t want to grow up yet.
Stuck in this limbo at home, he’s asked by his mom to take David to a bar mitzvah, where connects with old childhood friends he hasn’t seen in a long time, and takes over as master of ceremonies for the party, persuading everyone in the room to participate on the dance floor. In doing this, he discovers two things; one, a business opportunity to become a regular party promoter, who uses his talents to hype up everyone and provide an experience like no other, and second, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (a stunning debut performance for Vanessa Burghardt, who is autistic in real life). As Andrew goes from gig to gig, he keeps running into the single mother and her sweet child, and he grows a bond with the both of them. Most films would want to make this relationship creepy right off the bat, with Andrew making a grand scheme to be with Domino or her seducing him, but Raiff (who is the writer, director of the film as well as its star) doesn’t attempt to go down that rabbit hole. Instead, everything is with the purest intentions, mostly because Andrew just likes taking care of people.
When Dominio has something tragic happen to her at one of the parties, Andrew makes sure she and Lola are safe, making for a pretty cool exit before he drives them home and waits downstairs to make sure everything is fine. It’s within these moments where Raiff shines, where he is connecting with Burghardt’s Lola about her pet hamster, and if she needs anything before she falls asleep, or when he becomes an ear for Domino to express her fears about the decisions she is going to make soon, like marrying her fiancé (Raul Castillo) and possibly relocating to Chicago. When Andrew hears this, he offers his babysitting services, so she can go out and enjoy some nights on the town but they are futile because the best parts of her night are coming home and talking to Andrew about the trails of life. They are comfortable with one another, easily able to talk about anything. And with that, these two simply just need each other far more than just romantically, as they need each other spiritually, as vessels to figure out what they are and aren’t afraid of, and if they are ready to take the next big steps in their lives.
There is no question that these ideas have been explored before in dozens of coming-of-age comedies and romantic comedies. But the difference with those and Cha Cha Real Smooth is the sensitivity and earnestness Raiff has behind and in front of the camera. On the page, he’s made a script that continues the through line of his debut Shithouse, demonstrating the angsty nature many of this generation face when having to grow up, but also does it with a charm we haven’t seen on the big screen in such a long time. Raiff’s performance is pitch perfect, with every hesitation, smile, and quibble landing throughout each scene. Then you match him with Johnson, and all bets are off, as their chemistry could electrify not just a screen, but an entire major metropolitan city. Johnson, one of the best actresses working today, gives this nervous, fragile character a true sense of style and warmth that only Johnson could bring in the best performance of her career. She is a revelation in this movie. Mann, Garrett, Burghard, and Assante deliver brilliant supporting performances, executing Raiff’s dialogue flawlessly.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is a deeply passionate, bittersweet comedy about not just finding your first love, but finding yourself and accepting the inevitable growth we all have to endure at one point in our lives. If Shithouse is about the anxiety of being in college, and this is about the tribulations of becoming an adult post college, it will be fascinating to see if Cooper Raiff continues this thread in his next film, as we examine what happens after you’ve matured. If it’s anything like this, it will be a deeply personal and heartwarming experience.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.