Updated: Mar 7, 2022
Cooper Raiff was first introduced to audiences in Shithouse, which he directed, wrote, and starred in during his senior year of college. It impresses with its humanity, humor, and relatability. For his sophomore outing, Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff seems to pick up exactly where he left off in Shithouse, as Cha Cha Real Smooth is centered around the awkward transition from college to the real world. Once again, Raiff portrays the main character, a twenty-two-year-old recent college grad who has just moved back in with his family.
From the onset, Raiff’s candid style is on full display. The dialogue is extremely organic, to the point where it feels like improvisation. The conversations carry a withheld, anxious feeling, as if the characters are unsure of what they want to say. When the characters ultimately collect their thoughts, they have a surprising wit that catches you off guard. Raiff’s character, Andrew, lands a job as a party organizer for bar and bat mitzvahs, so much of the film takes place amongst middle schoolers. Raiff seems to feel at home creating stories about transitional times in life, and he plays heavily on the uncertainty of those times for our enjoyment. He uses hard cuts from scene to scene which gives the audience very limited time to adjust which contributes to Andrew's sense of disorientation.
Cha Cha’s comedy is well-matched with its intimate feel. Alluring party scenes and kitchen bar countertops are the backdrops for Andrew’s ever-increasing hometown entanglement. The intimacy between Dakota Johnson’s character, Domino, and Andrew is established through their conversation. Close over-the-shoulder shots and whispered lines of affection frame their relationship. Although there were times when this intimacy actually became physical, those instances are framed as superficial, and the timing is never quite right for them to take it to the next level.
One weakness in the screenplay’s otherwise heartfelt realism is the way that Domino’s actions seem to lack consequences. Her fiancé is initially established as a de facto villain and an obstacle to her relationship with Andrew. However, the tension that he is supposed to create between them is unfounded, as never does her infidelity put her engagement at risk. Also, the transition of her fiancé from the stereotypical “wrong man” to soulmate is jarring. There’s a pivotal scene where Joseph consoles Andrew after an emotionally wrought evening, but Joseph is shown in a negative light from the moment he was introduced. Tonally, Joseph's switch-up is confusing, but the payoff in the conclusion is worth that messy transition.
Raiff fixates on two central themes; doing what is best for yourself and living in the moment. For much of the film, these two concepts are at odds with one another. Domino struggles with her sense of fulfillment throughout the film. As a young mother with an autistic daughter, she desperately seeks stability and commitment, yet because of her past, she clings to Andrew, who represents freedom to her. Andrew seemingly wants this stability as well, as he is struggling to find a job and has just been broken up with. However, he is still very young, and he still has his twenties to maneuver through. It is well established that their stages of life are in conflict, yet Andrew can’t seem to take the hint. There were so many opportunities for this film to fall into common tropes. Instead, however, Raiff does justice for both of the characters by trying to give them what they need in the long run.
In many contemporary dramedies, filmmakers fail to achieve a middle ground between disillusionment and optimism. Cha Cha Real Smooth easily could’ve become a standard rom-com or a cynical social commentary about the prospects following college. Instead, Raiff’s healthy mix of self-awareness and zest for life grants the film a loving dose of both. Raiff’s preference for epilogs may seem like an easy cop-out to avoid ambiguity, but in the case of Cha Cha, one final party scene just makes sense.