Not yet even 25, Cooper Raiff is already onto his second film as writer-director-lead. More technically accomplished and a bit less cutesy than his debut, 2020’s well-reviewed but little-seen Freshman Year, Cha Cha Real Smooth follows that film’s themes of young men who overthink their feelings and learn to accept that not everything is about them.
Raiff plays Andrew, an aimless 22-year-old who is fed up with his job at a fast-food restaurant but has no idea what he wants to do. When he takes his younger brother to a bat mitzvah, Andrew discovers that his mixture of extreme self-confidence and playful boyishness makes him very good at pepping up dull parties. So good, in fact, that multiple parents offer to pay him to be a hype man for their own children’s celebrations.
As a bonus, the bat mitzvah also introduces Andrew to Domino (Dakota Johnson), the single mother of an autistic teenager, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Andrew’s easy, inclusive way with Lola charms Domino and the pair develop an unlikely connection.
Raiff is a charismatic presence, but Andrew is the weakest part of his own movie. A character facing no particular difficulty, yet still self-pitying, he’s tough to root for. Far more interesting is Domino – which, in fairness, Raiff seems aware of, shifting the focus more to her in the second half – who is trying to clear the multiple hurdles life has put in front of her, while Andrew sees hurdles that don’t exist.
Dakota Johnson gives one of her best performances
Johnson gives one of her best performances, chipping away at the protective layer Domino’s built up. There are some moments of really sophisticated character work in Raiff’s writing and direction, particularly in how he keeps challenging the audience’s feelings about Domino’s boyfriend (Raul Castillo).
Raiff is a talented multi-hyphenate and his second film shows big growth. If Cha Cha Real Smooth feels like it’s following the indie coming-of-age template of Garden State et al, it still does it better than most. When he puts the focus on someone else, he could really go places.
On Apple TV+ and in selected cinemas Jun 17.