Cooper Raiff has carved out a unique space for his disarming and charming voice in cinema in just two films. HIs 2020 debut, Sh*thouse, was about a lonely college freshman trying to find his place in life. This theme carries into his second film, Cha Cha Real Smooth. At the core is Raiff playing another stumbling young man, drifting through life. He does so with honesty and humor.
Those elements help separate Raiff from being classified as mumblecore. Andrew (Raiff), the central character here, doesn't navel-gaze. While he is in arrested development, he also isn't the man-child that populates so many of Judd Apatow's films. There is a natural and loose vibe to Cha Cha Real Smooth that feels like its own thing. This helps to make the film feel fresh even when some plot contrivances come into play. The tone of the film sits somewhere between twee and cloying and miraculously never becomes either. This is largely due to just how charming Raiff is.
Andrew is akin to Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything. He doesn't have life figured out aside from knowing some things he doesn't want for himself. He is earnest to a fault, as shown in the film's opening prologue that flashes back to a young Andrew declaring his love for a woman he sees crying in a stairwell at a bar-mitzvah. She lets him down gently but this moment seems to define him. Ten years later, he lives with his mother (Leslie Mann) and stepfather (Brad Garrett) after college, working at Meat Stick in a mall.
When his little brother David (Evan Assante) asks him to take him to a bar-mitzvah, Andrew turns the party from lame to super fun by getting everyone to dance. The local moms begin hiring him as the "party starter" for their kids' bar-mitzvahs. The events mirror Andrew's own journey in growing up. This begins when he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Andrew intervenes when Lola is picked on by some other kids. He gets Lola to dance and soon becomes her babysitter, mostly to get close to Domino. However questionable those motives may seem, Raiff plays Andrew with such open compassion that it never comes off as anything but genuine. As attracted as he may be to Domino, he truly cares for Lola as well.
Domino is the catalyst for Andrew to move on to his next phase of life. She is engaged to the tough-acting Joseph (Raúl Castillo). Even as their relationship moves beyond acquaintances and Andrew shares intimate moments with Domino, it is clear the situation is more complex than other rom-coms would show. It would be so easy to make Joseph into a jerk but Raiff is careful to write him as a good guy. One of the film's themes centers around people having multiple soul-mates. While Andrew and Domino might be soul-mates so are Joseph and Domino.
It is this complex approach married with an unforced charm that makes Cha Cha Real Smooth so refreshing. The film could easily veer into being cloying and precious but Raiff knows how to bring enough reality and truth to this belated coming-of-age film to avoid that. It is apparent that Raiff loves his characters and each one gets a moment to shine and complicate what you may have assumed about them. The cast is wonderful. Burghardt is a standout making Lola into a smart, likable young girl that never courts pity. Johnson gives one of her strongest performances to date creating wonderful chemistry with Raiff. The two of them are easy to watch, making you want to hang out with them past the film's ending.