Coming-of-age stories tend to focus on teenagers, as the high school years and puberty and everything else related to that time can contain massive amounts of change. But what happens after someone graduates from college can be just as confusing, as you’re no longer considered a kid but you’re also not fully an adult.
Writer/director/actor/Dallas native Cooper Raiff expertly explores that fraught time period in his sophomore film, Cha Cha Real Smooth. Raiff plays Andrew, a 22-year-old college graduate without a plan forced to move back home with his mom (Leslie Mann), stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett), and younger brother David (Evan Assante), making a little bit of money working at a cheap mall food chain called Meat Sticks.
While accompanying David to a friend’s bat mitzvah, Andrew becomes an impromptu party starter, trying to liven things up. He does such a good job that he’s recruited by other Jewish mothers to actually do the job at future parties. He’s more than happy to do so, especially as Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), with whom he hits it off at that first bat mitzvah, are regular attendees at the celebrations.
If it were like a lot of other movies, Cha Cha Real Smooth would push hard on the will they/won’t they question between Andrew and Domino. But the 25-year-old Raiff has a subtlety to his filmmaking that belies his young age. He takes his time setting up the story, establishing Andrew’s so-nice-it-hurts personality and the barely-contained depressive demeanor of Domino. Every time they get together is a small building block, adding up to something completely satisfying.
And while the bond between Andrew and Domino is immediate and obvious, Raiff layers on multiple other elements to flesh out both characters. Andrew is at ease as both a party starter and when helping his brother plan his first kiss or Lola come out of her shell, but he also has an underlying hostility for his stepfather and bullies at the parties. Domino has experienced a lot at a relatively young age, and her search for answers is an ongoing one that just happens to rope in Andrew.
While there’s nothing overly complicated about the story, it’s difficult to overstate how impressive Raiff’s filmmaking is. At a time in life when most aspiring filmmakers are making low-budget short films, Raiff demonstrates a sharp focus to his storytelling. There is never a moment when he fails to connect the dots between scenes, loses the emotion due to poor editing, or falls prey to easy plot mechanisms. The film may seem simple on the surface, but it’s far from it.
Raiff as an actor is interesting to watch. He has a habit of speaking with his teeth showing the majority of the time, like he’s in a constant half-smile. In addition to his upbeat personality, this visual makes him highly watchable. Johnson makes for a nice scene partner for him, as she’s noticeably restrained yet still compelling. Other standouts include Mann and, making her movie debut, Burghardt.
There’s an ache to the story of Cha Cha Real Smooth that’s highly relatable for anyone who struggled to find their way in the world in their twenties. In the able hands of a filmmaker like Raiff, the movie is one that opens and breaks your heart in equal measures.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is playing in select theaters and on Apple TV+.