Cinematic polymath Cooper Raiff (director, writer, actor, producer), is currently part of Variety’s List Of New Directors To Watch In 2022. After his breakout film S#!%house — that was the recipient of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Film — he returns with another compassionate cross-section of contemporary society.
Raiff’s second feature, Cha Cha Real Smooth, is a romantic dramedy that is told through the perspective of twenty-two year old Andrew (Cooper Raif), a recent college graduate who is figuring out his path through life. He is stuck at home in New Jersey with his mother (Leslie Mann), stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett), and younger brother David (Evan Assante), and works in a fast-food while his girlfriend Maya (Amara Pedroso) moves to Barcelona. His strength as a party starter lands him the perfect job of motivational dancing, at the bar and bat mitzvahs for the classmates of his sibling. During one of these celebrations Andrew befriends a local mother, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Spending time with them, confronting Domino’s fiancé Joseph (Raúl Castillo), finding escapism with his classmate Macy (Odeya Rush) and acting as mentor to David and his friend Rodrigo (Colton Osorio), allow Andrew to discover the future he wants.
Although the film might apparently not shine for plot, it beams for the sensitivity with which Cooper Raiff presents today’s society, blending authenticity and idealism. The young filmmaker tackles current issues, from diversity to mental health as well as the evolution of gender roles. He shows how the situation stands today, but also presents the best version of what it should be. Andrew is someone who treats Lola as an equal, hence Raiff does not introduce autism in his film as a tokenism but as part of modern society. Besides working with the organisation called Respect Ability — that mentored the production in portraying this condition — Raiff wrote the character of Lola in a way that her developmental disability is just one aspect of her. Furthermore, Andrew discusses depression with Domino without sugar-coating the topic, in fact it is blatantly described as a moment when “you don’t remember what better feels like.” Raiff’s talent in using the simplest words to explain the most intricate aspects of our lives are both uplifting and refreshing. In these regards, the peak of the film is when Dakota Johnson’s character speaks about the complexity of commitment and the magic of the possibilities as opposed to ongoing relationships because “giving your heart to somebody is the scariest, the most dangerous, the most perplexing thing.”
Cha Cha Real Smooth presents 21st century multifaceted masculinity. The film is an earnest and open-hearted depiction of manliness, that dismantles the urge of cinematic storytelling to pursue the cliched prototype of macho virility. Finally an endearing depiction of a young man lands on the silver screen and this does not go to the detriment of his sexiness, quite the contrary. Andrew still embodies the knight in shining armour with a saviour complex who wants to rescue everyone from any kind of hardship: a woman who is older than him from her fragility, his sibling from the hindrances of puberty and the young autistic girl he babysits from bullying. The title itself is the emblem of what happens to him. The lyrics of Mr. C The Slide Man’s song Cha-Cha Slide, can be heard at one of the parties where Andrew works. This is the moment in which he encourages kids to get creative on the dance floor and it equally suits his existential journey since in current slang this expression is used to define the accomplishment of a tricky task.
This cinematic Bildungsroman is very well anchored to our culture and bestows a radical portrayal of the male gaze. We see many tears running down Andrew’s face, we watch in awe when the young man acts as motivational love coach to his little brother who is preparing for his first kiss with Margaret (Brooklyn Ramirez), and we empathise with all the entanglements he confronts throughout his own coming-of-age. Audiences can identify with the struggle and pain of ill-fated infatuations and disillusionment of that early stage in life, that nevertheless gathers a portfolio of remembrances we cherish for the rest of our lives, as the characters say: “memories aren’t going anywhere.”
Cha Cha Real Smooth presented at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, will stream on Apple TV+ from June 17th.
Final Grade: B+