by Jason Osiason
At the start of the pandemic, you made remember a movie called Shithouse was the first SXSW movie to win the Film Competition virtually. Now rising young filmmaker, Cooper Raiff has real potential to complete the honors once again at Sundance with his sophomore film Cha Cha Real Smooth, a charmingly candid portrait of the anguish and ecstasy of entering adulthood.
Andrew, played by Cooper Raiff himself, has been a lifelong romantic for as long as he can remember. He grew up into being the endearingly goofy and confidently affable center of attention wherever he finds himself and is the person endlessly unloading advice to both his family and friends. However, at the heart of it all, he’s still in search of himself. If there is any weakness he has beyond his early-20’s immaturity, it is that he falls in love too quickly. Now fresh out of college and money, he finds himself shamefully employed at a local fast-food establishment as a college grad. Andrew has idealistic aspirations of following a girlfriend to Barcelona who likely has already moved on romantically. Many plot points and character traits may sound generic, but Raiff integrates an endearing authenticity to even the most cliched narrative ideas. We’re then brought back to a familiar setting from the start of the film he feels his most himself, a Bar Mitzvah. Paired wisely by the everlasting youthful energy Bar Mitzvah parties help facilitate, Andrew finds himself involuntarily hired as a party starter for Jewish mothers thanks to his natural charisma and immediate abilities to overhaul any hired Bar Mitzvah DJ.
At one of these parties, he meets a daughter and engaged mom in her early 30’s, Domino, played by Dakota Jonhson, and he’s immediately love-struck. The rest of the romantic journey hits many familiar beats you expect, but still feels winningly fresh and at least has an ending that feels genuinely grounded in reality. Cooper and Johnson have terrific chemistry on-screen, and you’re intoxicated by their dynamic despite obvious age-gap issues. The film also touches on various tricky subjects such as childhood autism, bipolar disorder, and clinical depression (Dakota Johnson nails it).
Still, sometimes I wish to spend more time building the latter two aspects since the autism subject is treated with such diligence and without feeling heavy-handed or exploitive. A real-life autistic actress plays Johnson’s daughter, delivering a fabulous debut on-screen performance. It may not be as cinematically groundbreaking as Sundance’s other coming-of-age The Worst Person in the World, but it doesn’t make the material less heartbreakingly honest. For a film about Bar Mitzvahs at the heart of it, you sometimes do wish it embraced Judaism a tad more, but I’m still happy it snuck in a scene that showcases the overall beauty of the Jewish milestone. Overall, the film is a warm blanket of a movie that subverts your expectations even when it begins to slip into typical romantic comedy genre trappings. Cooper Raiff is a real-deal talent, and I’m very excited to see whatever he brings next to the entertainment world.