It’s an indie tale as old as time: A young guy, feeling lost and confused about his path in life, unrequitedly falls in love with an older woman. She’s effortlessly cool — a walking, talking enigma with perfect hair and ambiguous feelings towards our protagonist. Is she leading him on? Or does she actually love him? Enough to leave her cold, rich, detached husband? You know what happens next.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” follows Andrew (Cooper Raiff, “Shithouse”), a 22-year-old fresh out of college and living at home as he navigates the post-college limbo. While working as a party starter for local bar mitzvahs, he meets a young mom named Domino (Dakota Johnson, “The Lost Daughter”) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt, debut).
Written, directed by and starring 25-year-old Raiff, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” works under the distinct synchronicity of a writer, director and actor all in one. It speaks to his ability to wholly exist within a scene and objectively direct outside of it, to project an idea to the screen and conduct the act of projection itself. His thematic vision is consistent throughout, with closely knit parallels between characters experiencing periods of change at their respective ages of 12, 22 and 32. For Andrew’s younger brother David (Evan Assante, “Dinosaur World”), it’s the bar mitzvah phase of transitioning from a boy to a young man. For Andrew, it’s finding a job after college and reckoning with the heartbreak of not every love being your one soulmate, but rather, one of many. For Domino, it’s moving on to the adult relationship of your life, to a level of commitment that your 20s can’t always afford.
From the get-go it’s easy to tell where Andrew’s trajectory is headed, as he quickly and inevitably falls in love with Domino. Predictable as it may be, their relationship holds its own, mainly because they’re both well-written, interesting and engaging characters. As a protagonist, Andrew is given the standard lead treatment: We understand his motivations and thought processes, and the heart that he so earnestly wears on his sleeve. Yet, the same goes for Domino, as she is able to voice her opinion and explain the reasoning behind her actions in a way the traditional female love interest is so rarely afforded. Everyone’s favorite “manic pixie dream girl” is a tired trope at best, but its features slip into over-romanticized female characters so often that the bar is practically six feet under. The character of Domino is refreshing solely because she exists outside of being a means to an end for Andrew’s character arc. Her agency ensures that while Andrew’s infatuation with her may blur his own perspective, it never skews the viewer’s.
In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Andrew and Domino share a moment over her kitchen countertop eating ice pops and having a sincere discussion about depression. When Andrew asks what being depressed feels like, Domino responds, “Like you don’t remember what better feels like. And then you do things that you think will make it feel better, but they don’t … and the things that I’m really scared of doing are the things that will probably help me the most, but I just can’t do them.” Through multiple open conversations such as this one, the audience comes to intimately understand the ambiguity that clouds Domino, from her tenuous relationship with her fiancé, Joseph (Raúl Castillo, “Looking”), to the mixed signals she sends Andrew. When Andrew remarks that he can’t tell whether she’s “holding back a desire to be close or a desire to be distant,” it feels as though Domino’s outer shell has been cracked right open. It’s confounding to watch Andrew read her so well and still miss the inevitable end in sight.
The unique thing about this movie is that this level of depth extends to the rest of the characters. Andrew’s family feels fleshed out, and their familial comedic dialogue is organically composed in Andrew’s natural rapport with David or conversations with his mom (Leslie Mann, “This Is 40”). Raiff’s writing of the characters holds an innately observant quality that seems to be infused within Andrew himself, and it lends itself to Raiff’s screen presence — an affable, lovably charming energy that meshes so well with his screen partners. This deeply observant and attentive character work is especially apparent with Domino’s daughter, Lola. Her autism never defies the depths and bounds of her characterization or the significance of her and Domino’s mother-daughter dynamic at the heart of the story. These familial relationships ground both Andrew and Domino as characters and much of the film itself.
When asked about the film’s title, Raiff simply responded, “It’s the part of the dance where you do your own dance,” which is what “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is all about: The part of your life where you figure out how you want to live it. From Dakota Johnson’s impeccable bangs to a highly climactic “Cha Cha Slide” dance scene, this film is a fun, feel-good watch about the coming-of-age that can happen at any stage in life.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.