It’s been a few weeks since I saw Cha Cha Real Smooth at the Brattle Theater as part of IFF Boston. The film has lingered on me more and more upon my return to my hometown, retreating from my college life to a suburban existence, rife with aimless drives, a lackluster part-time job, and general monotony. I’ve found a lot of solace in Cha Cha Real Smooth, a reassurance of the universality of my experience. The film reflects Andrew’s (Cooper Raiff) desire to inject joy and electricity into a place that suddenly feels lifeless, by means of “party hosting” Bat Mitzvahs and striking up a connection with Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). The center of this film fits the stereotype of independent coming-of-age film, but Raiff’s screenplay has more to it than that, there is something more special and real in this iteration of the “it’s okay to not know what you want to do” indie film than in many others.
Cooper Raiff’s sophomore feature, following his breakout hit Shithouse, brings a lovable indie charm without pretentiousness or falsity. Raiff doesn’t have anything especially original to say in this one, it’s merely a message of reassurance for college graduates or any directionless Gen Z-er that it is okay to not be on a proper career path, to not have a real job, or to not know even the slightest bit what you are doing with your life. The message has been told over and over again, but what makes Raiff’s iteration of it special are the comedic beats and the genuine relatability. He affirms his Gen Z nature with a hilariously heartfelt soundtrack (the title is most definitely a reference to a middle school dance-era song) and jokes that didn’t fully register with the crowd I saw it with (I’m not sure many knew who Jake Paul is). Cha Cha Real Smooth joins the ranks of Eighth Grade with social media usage and dialogue that is a reflection of Gen Z, and not a mockery of it.
Still, one of the scenes in particular doesn’t work, with heartfelt dialogue feeling forced and disingenuous, but the chemistry is still there. When Andrew and Domino eat ice pops and talk deeply about their lives and relationship, it feels rigid and forced. This scene is not bad enough to make this a run-of-the-mill Sundance release that preaches regular humanity and fails to properly write it, but it still overemphasizes Raiff’s thesis of love, coming-of-age, and lack of direction. The rest of the film makes the scene forgivable, though it still pulls the curtain of authenticity back a little bit. The film works best when the scenarios are awkward and real, not when they’re regular conversations being injected with pretentiousness and the desire to say something about the world. More is said when Domino, Andrew, Lola, and David (Evan Assante) walk out of a Bat Mitzvah in slow motion, adorned in oversized, cheesy, spray-painted gift shop shirts, than in any conversation about life and love between Domino and Andrew.
The comedy of Cha Cha Real Smooth, however, doesn’t miss a beat. Leslie Mann as the ever-present kind movie mother amplifies the jokes of the cold open, and it only gets better from there. Andrew screams the lyrics of “WAP” into a microphone at a Bat Mitzvah and gets humorously chastised by a parent. The scene featuring the titular “Cha Cha Slide” is not only energetic and fun, but emotionally-pulling and powerful. Andrew’s job as a “party host” invites plenty of comedic moments and fun needle drops, but the way it demonstrates the intersection of his lack of direction and inability to move on from college, with his deep love for his brother and empathy for others is powerful and fascinating. His life is still grounded in reality, as he also works part-time at a fast food joint “Meat Sticks,” and he tries desperately to work anywhere else.
Far more enticing than the primary relationship between Andrew and Domino is his relationship with his little brother, David. When Andrew tells David that he doesn’t actually know anything in regards to the advice he was relaying about kissing a girl for the first time, it’s all too evident that he is speaking on multiple levels here. It reveals Andrew’s own lack of maturity, and though occasionally this is emphasized too much, the comedy and fun within the relationship keep it wholly afloat. They are the primary reason why this film works so well, as their antics and immaturity are extremely funny, and their fun chemistry dancing and partying at Bat Mitzvahs makes Andrew, in particular, likable from the start. We root for him, and overlook his childish behaviors and mistakes because his relationship with David, before his relationship with Domino, demonstrates how deeply he cares about others.
For lovers of a comedic bildungsroman, Cha Cha Real Smooth is worth the watch. Raiff’s writing still sparkles as much as it can and, though the thesis is common, the honest and kind depiction of Gen Z, the remarkable humor, and great music make this one special. Although it gets overzealous at times, Raiff’s sophomore feature keeps its heart.