‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ Review (Sundance Review)

It’s nice to know, in real time, that Gen-Z’s going to be alright. Despite all the hair-pulling and screaming about the death of art in the modern world (mostly by Boomers), there’s been a steady rise of artists under 25 tackling real-world issues on a microbudget in ways that are wise beyond their years. Last year, we had Emma Seligman’s wonderful Shiva Baby. And this year, we have Cooper Raiff’s follow-up to his stunning debut Sh*thouse. His latest is Cha Cha Real Smooth, a Sundance breakout, and if its warmhearted look at life and love in the modern world doesn’t warm your heart, then I don’t know what will.

Andrew (Raiff) is a recent college graduate with few aspirations for the real world. Determined to move to Europe to reunite with his ex-girlfriend, he finds himself working a dead-end job at the mall food court. After taking his brother David (Evan Assante) to a classmate’s Bar Mitzvah, Andrew realizes that he can use his youthful, outgoing energy to work as a party host, paid by the parents to get the kids out on the dance floor. Through this endeavor, Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), a single mom with an autistic daughter (Vanessa Burghardt). Andrew and Domino hit it off right away, and through their friendship, Andrew finds himself preparing to face the real world.

In Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff manages to capture ideas both contemporary and universal. It’s a sharp, witty look at the struggle to grow up post-graduation – ideas tracing back to The Graduate in 1967 – as well as a look at Gen-Z malaise in the modern gig economy and trying to have it all in 2022. Instead of the glamorous post-graduate life he’d imagined (or the one his ex is currently living), Andrew finds himself living at home, on an air mattress in his brother’s bedroom, with his supportive mom (Leslie Mann) and stern stepfather (Brad Garrett).

He works at The Meat Stick (a terrific joke), and networks by working kids’ birthday parties – a last-ditch effort to hold onto his carefree youth. Those his same age live in a similar sense of arrested development – the most popular girl in high school laments that she’s already peaked at the ripe age of 22. It’s no wonder, with the world that surrounds him, that Andrew would rather chase an unattainable older woman who’s got things seemingly figured out – why stay in your twenties if being in your twenties sucks?

Furthermore, because of the world they’ve been born into and inherited, Gen-Z has developed into a strangely imbalanced generation, one both wise beyond their years and a product of their environment. Raiff manages to portray this dichotomy in Andrew, who struggles with a rich emotional maturity and a childishly self-destructive drive he cannot fully understand. It makes his relationship with Domino a fascinating subversion of the Garden State/Manic Pixie Dream Girl arc; he has to learn that other people aren’t just constructs in his own life story, and the world isn’t as clean-cut as he’d like. Good people can be flawed; people aren’t always ill-meaning; and everyone is capable of growth and change.

Of course, tackling all these ideas is made easy thanks to the film’s central relationship – that of Andrew and Domino. Raiff is a natural actor, possessing an undeniable sweetness that makes one cheer for his protagonists even at their worst. And he’s no different here, playing a hopeless romantic who reads too far into signs and struggles because of his naivete. Yet he places the heart of the film not with his angsty college boy, but instead with his costar. It’s a wise move on his part, as the film comes alive when Johnson bursts onscreen. Hers is a performance so lived-in, one forgets that she’s a rich actress born of Hollywood royalty, and not a former Pennsylvania teen mom.

Together the two have dazzling chemistry, electric from the jump, which Raiff fleshes out with swoon-worthy moments based on kindness, not swagger. Andrew’s efforts to woo her away from her fiancé Joseph (Raúl Castillo) come from little gestures – sticking up for her daughter; looking past her diagnosis and treating her like the person she is; and, in the type of romantic moment films don’t possess anymore, Raiff places his hands beneath Johnson’s elbows to cushion her on a countertop. It’s a strangely erotic moment born of human empathy and support. The film doesn’t work without either of these two performers, individually or as a romantic duo.

Everything moves fluidly and effortlessly thanks to Raiff’s capabilities as a writer and director. The 24-year-old has a gift for writing surprisingly smart, realistic dialogue that combines the modern mumblecore movement with the indie spirit of the 90s. It’s clear that he’s been influenced by his mentors, the Duplass Brothers, but it goes further than that. The distinct, generational voices of Richard Linklater and Lena Dunham can also be deeply felt. Every story beat lands, whether it’s a punchy joke, an emotional catharsis, or a romantic interlude.

This knack for storytelling extends beyond the page and into the control behind the camera – everything is precisely staged. Raiff can make you want to get up and dance, laugh out loud, or squirm with extreme discomfort. And in an improvement over Sh*thouse (admittedly one of the only ways the film surpasses its predecessor), Cha Cha Real Smooth’s musical cues almost leap from the screen, from Este Haim’s score to the soundtrack. It helps that, in keeping the Bar Mitzvah theme, the playlist consists of party staples, like “The Show Goes On,” “Funkytown,” and “WAP,” all accompanied by precisely staged dance scenes. Oh, and if you’re wondering if the titular song makes an appearance, it does – during a fight scene both hilarious and cathartic.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the other performers in the film; each role seems perfectly cast. Assante is terrific as the kid brother, while Burghard has killer timing and delivery as Lola. Lady Bird’s Odeya Rush has a terrific monologue as once-popular It Girl Macy. Leslie Mann shines in a few key scenes as Andrew’s overprotective mom, although I wish there was more to the subplot involving her bipolar disorder. And in two roles that could have gone very wrong in less capable hands, Raúl Castillo and Brad Garrett walk a thin line that challenge audiences’ expectations with both humor and warmth hidden within seemingly cold exteriors.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is a film that just gets better as it goes along. I was worried during its first few scenes; by the finale I was bowled over. This is a work of a star on the rise, someone who deeply understands society on a micro and macro level. It’s sweet when it needs to be, funny consistently, and wholeheartedly earnest – a sharp example of not only what Gen-Z has to offer, but independent cinema itself.

A-

Cha Cha Real Smooth will stream on Apple TV+ on June 17th; it is now playing in select theaters nationwide

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