Cooper Raiff writes, directs and stars in his second feature as a rudderless twenty-something who finds purpose when he meets Domino and his daughter, Lola, who has autism.
At only 25 years old, Raiff is already a director who is making a name for himself. He wrote, directed and starred in his first film, ‘Shithouse’, in 2020 when he was just 22. The film, an independent coming-of-age film about a lonely freshman received accolades, winning Best Narrative Feature at SXSW. Jay Duplass, a former independent darling, took him under his wing and his mentorship paid off.
A follow-up project after such success is always a tough juncture. Raiff’s name was on everyone’s lips in the industry. Expectations begin to rise naturally with this pressure.
But, with ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’, Raiff manages to stay within the realm of “up-and-coming young filmmaker”, to continue his trajectory and, despite a few bumps along the way, the film is an enjoyable and emotionally engaging indie film.
Raiff stars as Andrew, fresh out of college with no idea what to do next. Her ex has moved halfway around the world to Barcelona and he’s stuck with his mother (Leslie Mann) and stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett), sharing a room with his younger brother David (Evan Assante). Working at a fast food joint called ‘Meat Sticks’ and not much else to his name, Andrew discovers a hidden talent while chaperoning David at a Bat Mitzvah: getting the party started.
Beginning his new job as a professional party starter, Andrew meets the mysterious Domino – brilliantly played by Dakota Johnson – and his daughter Lola, who has autism. Domino suffers from depression and her fiancé (Raúl Castillo) is barely there to help Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who is struggling to fit in at school.
However, Andrew’s charm and enthusiasm bring solace to both mother and daughter and he eventually becomes Lola’s babysitter. Before he knows it, he’s head over heels in love with Domino.
There is a trickling effect of life experience flowing through the scenes of ‘Cha Cha’. It all starts with the aptly named Domino, who had Lola at a young age and gave up his twenties to take care of her. “It was hard ?” Andrew asks naively upon meeting her. “Sometimes, but not because of her.”
When Andrew and Domino share a scene, the college graduate comes across as a kid, almost in awe of this person who’s been through so much so young. But when Andrew interacts with David, the dynamic changes and he becomes a life guru, giving advice like how to handle a first kiss or getting his brother’s friends to dance.
There is an energetic innocence about Andrew – a desire to please. He begins to experience the realities of life as an adult but caught between that and his determination to bring childlike joy into the lives of others. At one point, Domino says he looks like “the sweetest person in the world”. And that certainly seems to be the case.
The main problem with ‘Cha Cha’ is indeed this inherent “softness” of the central character and the motivations behind them. Andrew seems to be bouncing around, aimlessly bumping into people with problems he can try to solve. His motives can sometimes seem misleading in nature, maybe just trying to fill a void in his own life or come across as a nice guy.
It may just be that this reviewer is slightly cynical, but Andrew is a bit thrown too many in a good light. Perhaps if his flaws were more pronounced or his actions had more consequences – of which there’s ample opportunity to show – then a satisfying character arc would be clearer throughout the film. What we are left with, however, are the stakes too low to really invest in his journey.
However, Johnson’s outstanding performance as Domino is beautifully understated. It’s a silent powerhouse of pent-up emotions and rigid acceptance that she pulls off so well. Her complex relationships with her fiancé, daughter, and Andrew come from three different directions, but she’s able to shift so subtly from one dynamic to another with such ease.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is lovely and watchable, but it’s hard to shake off the feeling that it could have delved deeper into some characters’ stories, especially Lola, played by newcomer Burghardt, who is herself. even on the autism spectrum.
Focusing more on the experience than the end result, ‘Cha Cha’ is a sliding door moment captured in time in people’s lives. It’s a film about missed opportunities, learning from the past, and teaching others about life’s experiences.
Domino says during a particularly poignant scene that “the things I’m afraid to do are probably the ones that will help me the most.” Cooper Raiff is certainly not afraid to jump in and explore complex relationships and experiences. Given his obvious talent, there’s no doubt that he can take things a step further in his next project.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, June 17.