Cooper Raiff writes, directs and stars in his second feature as a rudderless twenty-something who finds purpose when he meets Domino and her daughter, Lola, who has autism.
At just 25-years-old, Raiff is already a director with a name for himself. He wrote, directed and starred in his first film, 'Shithouse', in 2020 when he was just 22. The film, a coming-of-age indie about a lonely college freshman received high praise, winning Best Narrative Feature at SXSW. Jay Duplass, a previous indie darling, took him under his wing and his mentorship was paying off.
A follow-up project after a success like that is always a tough junction to arrive at. Raiff's name was on everyone in the industry's lips. The expectations start to rise naturally with that pressure.
But, with 'Cha Cha Real Smooth', Raiff manages to stay within the realms of "promising young filmmaker", continue on his trajectory, and, despite some bumps along the way, the film is an enjoyable and emotionally engaging indie flick.
Raiff stars as Andrew, fresh out of college with no idea of what to do next. His ex has moved halfway across the world to Barcelona and he's stuck living with his mother (Leslie Mann) and stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett), sharing a room with his younger brother David (Evan Assante). Working in a fast food joint called 'Meat Sticks' and not much else to his name, Andrew discovers a hidden talent while chaperoning David to a Bat Mitzvah: getting the party started.
Beginning his new job as a professional party starter, Andrew runs into the mysterious Domino - played brilliantly by Dakota Johnson - and her daughter Lola, who has autism. Domino struggles with depression and her fiancé (Raúl Castillo) is hardly around to help out with Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who struggles to fit in at school.
However, Andrew's charm and enthusiasm brings comfort to both mother and daughter and he eventually becomes Lola's babysitter. Before he knows it, he's head over heels for Domino.
There is a trickle down effect of life experience that flows through the scenes of 'Cha Cha'. It all starts with the aptly-named Domino, who had Lola at a young age and has given up her twenties to care for her. "Was it hard?" asks Andrew naively upon meeting her. "Sometimes, but not because of her."
When Andrew and Domino share a scene, the college grad comes off as child-like, almost in awe of this person who has gone through so much so young. But when Andrew interacts with David, the dynamic shifts and he becomes life guru, dishing out advice like how to manage a first kiss or egging on his brother's friends to dance.
There's an energetic innocence to Andrew - an eagerness to please. He's starting to experience the realities of life as an adult but stuck in between that and his determination to bring childlike joy into other's lives. At one point, Domino says he looks "like the sweetest person alive." And it certainly seems that way.
The main issue with 'Cha Cha' is indeed this inherent "sweetness" of the central character and the motivations behind them. Andrew seems to bounce around, aimlessly bumping into people with issues he can try to solve. His motives can sometimes seem spurious in nature, perhaps just trying to fill a hole in his own life, or coming across as a nice guy.
Maybe it's just this reviewer being slightly cynical, but Andrew is cast a little too much in a good light. Maybe if his flaws were more pronounced, or his actions had more consequences - of which there is ample opportunity to show - then a satisfying character arc would be clearer throughout the film. What we're left with, however, are the stakes being too low to really invest in his journey.
Johnson's standout performance as Domino, however, is beautifully understated. It's a quiet powerhouse of repressed emotion and rigid acceptance which she pulls off so well. Her complex relationships with her fiancé, her daughter and Andrew are coming from three different directions, yet she is able to shift so subtly from one dynamic to another with such ease.
'Cha Cha Real Smooth' is charming and watchable, but it's hard to shake off the feeling it could have dived deeper into some character's stories, specifically Lola, played by newcomer Burghardt, who herself is on the autism spectrum.
Focusing more on the experience than the end-result, 'Cha Cha' is a sliding doors moment captured in time in people's lives. It's a film about missed opportunities, learning from the past and teaching others about life's experiences.
Domino says during a particularly poignant scene that "the things I'm scared of doing are probably the things that will help me the most." Cooper Raiff is definitely not scared to jump in and explore complex relationships and experiences. Given his obvious talent, there's no doubting he can wade a bit deeper on his next project.
'Cha Cha Real Smooth' is out on Apple TV+ on Friday, June 17.