[NOTE: Viewed as an official selection of the 2022 Seattle International Film Festival]
Growing up carries a series of challenges, at any age. Surviving one’s mid-twenties with its arduous is never easy, attempting to find one’s identity or life’s purpose before the window shuts. And even when or if we achieve that meaning, we may still go about it the wrong way. Writer/director/lead performer Cooper Raiff (S***house) has a knack for making that sort of aloof, bashful wanderer enough of a relatable hero. His latest point of example celebrates the ardent joy of growing and evolving, playing a half step above man-child status while sending a guiding hand of oft-misguided wisdom. That, in summary, is Cha-Cha Real Smooth. A comedy dancing its way to the finish, while not trouncing past the weight of its complicated steps.
Raiff recognizes that challenge right away, assuming the role of Andrew. He’s a 20-something in a period of limbo, not too distanced from graduating college with a major in marketing. His sights are set on Barcelona, eager to reunite with longtime girlfriend Maya. He’s saving up the money while living with family in New Jersey. It’s all very quirky, his home setup. More so than when he was a youngster. Mom Lisa (Leslie Mann) has dealt with manic episodes, stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett) is tough on approval and business tactics, and little brother David (Evan Assante) is battling adolescent awkwardness. These parameters only lessen Andrew’s approach to life, working in a menial fast-food position. His fortunes look to change, narrowly when his people skills land him plum gigs as an emcee/party starter for local bat mitzvahs.
Along the way, battling insecurity and slight alcohol addiction, he makes quick friends with lonely mom Domino (Dakota Johnson), chaperoning her autistic daughter Lola (newcomer Vanessa Burghardt) to several of these shindigs. While her lawyer husband Joseph (Raul Castillo) is off on business, she finds a confidant in Andrew, expressing her kindness. And in turn, he experiences a cloud over his deeper judgment, toeing a line to not cross a romantic line.
It might not appear all that clear, Raiff’s compendium for complicated relationships. Every connection Andrew possesses with another person is nothing less than unsure at occasions, clinging at others. Even his vices, to whom he’s carrying like bulletproof armor. He might have a good relationship with his family, though not at a stage of harmony like it had been in his childhood. As a flashback proves in the opening minutes, his wariness for heartbreak started early. I’m sure the gimmick would better serve Raiff in the span of a short film. Given the room to play around with every thread of Andrew’s emotion web, I felt like there could be ample survey. That there could be more than him being a one-note individual caught in his own uncertainty. We see the evidence as to why, and the intended solution.
The resolution in Andrew’s heart could best be answered by his swagger on the dance floor, embracing his role as a party animal, albeit too shrewdly. Even when on the job, dispersing wisdom to a gawky David, or finding a friendly spark with shy Lola, it’s with defenses down, and vulnerabilities up. Neither shame nor dishonesty need apply, as Raiff channels a clean-slate mentality to drop his grievances. And it leaves an impression on his castmates, with Burghardt leaving the loudest ripple for neurodivergent representation. In a two-direction scenario where the respondent must also show sympathy, Raiff extends a delicate olive branch as Ms. Johnson hangs on from the roots, her character learning to be a better mother amid a slightly haunted past.
Swimming within surface to chart this journey of people not in love, but sharing likeminded desires, Raiff is not a stranger to surprise, allowing certain moments to play in introspection, others in straight comedy. That pair of interloping ideas play as effectively as the film’s mixtape-like soundtrack, dual parts dance party and coffee shop motifs. Peaceful calm and unchecked chaos. That choreographed pattern can apply to every detail in Raiff’s playbook, most especially Andrew and Domino. A friendship so broad, bizarre while inciting malaise, it questions the metrics of a standard romantic comedy. Here, it’s too neutral, or platonic to adhere to any existing routine. And that is admirable, not the primary goal.
The real joy of Raiff’s tale is discovered when pursuing that meaning to life, a conquest tackled in a mutual faculty. He and Johnson are peas in a pod with that concept, enfolding in its depth, recognizing its long-term merit. Cha Cha Real Smooth may not roll into indie marquees, desperate to say anything fresh about love or personal evolution. Even the theme of drinking as a weak influence of courage couldn’t appear more tired here. Raiff’s inventiveness often does more than necessary to maintain an open mind on the matter his leads struggle to overcome. One not specifically of intimacy, but of yearning. The sort of yearning only found after college, where plans either disassemble or make added detours. And where closure requires a spot of atonement. And for once, with a film like this, it feels heartwarming. If not also a tad sluggish to reach its point. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Cha Cha Real Smooth plays in select theaters (in Seattle at SIFF Cinema Uptown) and streaming on Apple TV+ June 17; rated R for language and some sexual content; 107 minutes.