Cha Cha Real Smooth, Cooper Raiff’s (Shithouse) coming-of-age dramedy set during a time when people expect you to have all of your shit together, runs largely on its charm offensive. With a story that deals out laughs, awkwardness, and melancholy in spades, a great cast, and a soundtrack rife for nostalgia—including the party song whose lyrics gave Cha Cha its eclectic title—it’s also a bittersweet exploration of love, connection, and the many forms that can take.
DIRECTOR: Cooper Raiff
STREAMING: Apple TV+
After graduating college with little clue about what to do next, a 22-year-old returns home to his mom’s house in New Jersey where he becomes a party-starter at his brother’s classmates’ bar and bat mitzvahs and forms a connection with a single mom and her teenage daughter. Sweet without becoming too saccharine, it’s a charming coming-of-age tale with a Dakota Johnson showcase at its center.
Like so many coming-of-age protagonists, Andrew (Raiff, who also wrote the script) is at a crossroads. He’s 22, he just graduated from Tulane, and with no career prospects lined up, is forced to return home to live with his mom (Leslie Mann) and stepdad (Brad Garrett) who Andrew finds annoying. He has a dead-end job at a mall food court he hates, a girlfriend who traveled to Barcelona as a Fulbright scholar and started a new life without him; his motivation to change those circumstances is limited at best.
Andrew’s young and selfish and just a bit self-absorbed, but Raiff infuses enough boyish charm into him that people are, at most, only slightly annoyed by Andrew’s actions; most of the time, he wins them over. Case in point: When tasked with accompanying his younger brother David (Evan Assante) to a classmate’s bat mitzvah, Andrew, along with several Jewish moms in the room, discovers that he can get a group of mostly indifferent kids onto the dance floor, so they hire him to be the “party starter.”
For Andrew, there’s something alluring about the bar and bat mitzvah scene; after all, it’s where he first found some idea of love after he quickly fell for his bar mitzvah’s party starter before she gently turned him down. It’s also here that Andrew befriends Domino (Dakota Johnson), a young single mother who isn’t very popular with the other moms, and her teenage autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).
It initially starts off as a challenge—Lola, who’s older than the other kids, prefers to sit at the table by herself and play with a Rubik’s cube and keep her headphones on over getting onto the dance floor—but Andrew manages to get Lola dancing and embeds himself into both of their lives; he even starts to babysit Lola (and genuinely bonds with her on his own merit) so Domino can occasionally get out of the house to hang out with her friends or her fiancé Joseph (Raúl Castillo).
There’s a sweetness and vulnerability to this bond, one that’s cemented by Raiff and Johnson’s easy chemistry as they run through the gambit of will-they-or-won’t-they and the will-they-or-should-they. Party run-ins turn into late nights, and polite exchanges after a night of babysitting turn into deeper conversations. Domino, who describes giving your heart to another person as “the scariest, most dangerous, most perplexing thing,” is the kind of role that could feel flat, but in Johnson’s hands, it’s effortless and real. And as Andrew is attempting to figure out this part of his own life and coast on charm, he has an attentive audience in David, who’s looking to his older brother for advice on his love life and how to achieve his first kiss.
Cha Cha is light and breezy and just a little bit awkward thanks to Raiff’s script, so it’s easy for its more melancholy and bittersweet undertones to initially go unnoticed. It’s a delve into the next coming-of-age, but it’s also a more thoughtful examination of those specific connections between two people and how, no matter how long they last, will leave a lasting impression.
Cha Cha Real Smooth debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is now streaming on Apple TV+.