It remains to be seen whether Cooper Raiff can play anyone other than Cooper Raiff, but when the results are this strong, he may as well stay in his lane for perpetuity. The immensely likeable Cha Cha Real Smooth is the writer-director-star’s follow-up to his 2020 debut, Shithouse, and while the characters he plays bear different names — Alex in the freshman feature, Andrew in the sophomore film — they feel as connected in the arc of life experience as Antoine Doinel, the subject of five career-spanning François Truffaut films.
You don’t need to have seen Shithouse to appreciate Cha Cha, but the new film is a de facto sequel, evolving its already enlightened predecessor one step further. Both movies offer a defense of the beta male, finding strength through sensitivity, compassion and such quaint virtues as love for one’s family. That these themes can feel hip and never square is part of Raiff’s nimble talent, the invisible juju he injects as director.
While Shithouse movingly captured the separation anxiety Raiff’s avatar experienced after leaving home and going away to college, Cha Cha is set a few years later, in the immediate aftermath of his underwhelming undergrad career. Raiff’s Andrew had a steady girlfriend in his senior year, but she’s leaving him behind to continue her studies in Barcelona.
Like millions of adrift alumni, he has moved back into his parents’ house, sharing a room with his barely pubescent little bother David (Evan Assante), no less. He aspires to work for a do-gooding nonprofit but finds himself boiling hot dogs in a food court by day, and joining his parents and sibling at weekend mitzvahs for their close-knit Jewish community.
It’s in this capacity that Andrew realizes an untapped talent: as an enthusiastic party starter for these rites of passage, with their awkward combinations of ancient ritual and prom-like decadence. Before long, other mothers, admiring his ability to put people at ease and coerce their young ones out of their shells, are soliciting his services. For Andrew, it’s as cool/cringe-y as a side hustle can be.
More importantly, it leads to his meeting Domino (Dakota Johnson), an unhappy fiancée to an often-absent man, and who is raising Lola, a functioning autistic teenage daughter (Vanessa Burghardt, a natural in her acting debut). Andrew, who becomes something of a protector for Lola, finds another employment avenue as her sitter. The troubled Domino, meanwhile, looking down the barrel of a marriage she seems almost destined to torpedo, is a good 15 years Andrew’s senior. But their chemistry is as immediate as their prospects are untenable. (This is where the Licorice Pizza-style prologue of Cha Cha Real Smooth, in which the bold, pint-sized Andrew propositions the teenage girl leading his school dance, comes into stark relief as a foreshadow of the character’s later habits.)
Just as Shithouse captured the awkwardness and discomfort of the college experience in novel ways, Cha Cha Real Smooth channels the malaise of its 21st-century aftermath with unvarnished authenticity. In some ways, it’s an update of The Graduate for the gig economy, where one-word employment solutions are a relic of a more stable time, and where even the adults have trouble adulting.
Pleasing its audience without pandering to it, Raiff’s film is a wellspring of wisdom, thanks to the radical honesty in which his characters engage. “Do you think I’ve already peaked?” ponders Maya (Amara Pedroso Saquel), Andrew’s more age-appropriate girlfriend, and onetime object of desire for many a besotted fellow-collegiate. As for Domino, for whom depression has long been her unwelcome tether, she describes the condition in terms of “you don’t remember what better feels like.”
As its flawed and fumbling humans nakedly exchange their insecurities with illuminating results, Cha Cha Real Smooth becomes a testament to the talk therapy of everyday life. It works because people do speak like this; they just seldom do so in the movies, where irony and detachment have become a dominant tone in the cinema of the youngest generations. Raiff may have grown up with the mumblecore movement of the Aughts, but his characters have ascended beyond it, mumbling less and communicating with the clarity that they, and we, deserve.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH. Director: Cooper Raiff; Cast: Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Evan Assante, Vanessa Burghardt, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Raul Castillo; Distributor: AppleTV+; Rated R; Now playing at Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton and the Tower Theater in Miami, and streaming on Apple TV+.