2020s

Review: Cooper Raiff’s ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

Cha Cha Real Smooth is Cooper Raiff’s follow-up to Shithouse (2020), and the titles of both films disguise, or at least misdirect, the earnest and heartfelt positivity of the writer/director/actor’s hip-to-be-square worldview. Cha Cha Real Smooth, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January prior to a limited theatrical run and a streaming home release on Apple TV+ in June, feels a lot like a spiritual sequel to Shithouse. Raiff’s recent Tulane grad Andrew has much in common with the 2020 film’s freshman protagonist, Alex. Both young men wear their hearts on their sleeves, rely on supportive moms, struggle with the “growing up is hard to do” transition into adulthood and yearn for romances that seem to be just out of reach.

Raiff’s writing is built around the willingness of his characters to expose their vulnerabilities. Many viewers have responded enthusiastically to the filmmaker’s investment in the humane and the candid — Shithouse received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at South by Southwest and Cha Cha Real Smooth picked up an audience award at Sundance. Others have not been convinced. Manohla Dargis, who “didn’t believe a single second” of it, blasted the film as “American indie entertainment at its most canned and solipsistic.” Michael Phillips, Derek Smith and Bilge Ebiri also torched Cha Cha Real Smooth, taking aim at the protagonist, Andrew.

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Certainly, one person’s interpretation of emotional openness might be another person’s definition of what Phillips calls “creeping smugness and self-regard,” but I think Raiff is a legitimate addition to the broad group of artists identified with the New Sincerity trend as popularized by David Foster Wallace and Jim Collins (and frequently applied as a descriptor to the work of Wes Anderson). Stylistically, Raiff is much closer to the realistic, low-budget DIY aesthetics practiced by booster/supporter Jay Duplass than he is to the painstaking miniatures imagined by Anderson, but both clearly eschew cynicism and, to paraphrase Wallace’s ideas on the subject, risk accusations of sentimentality and softness.

Dylan Gelula is brilliant opposite Raiff in Shithouse, and Dakota Johnson is equally beguiling as Domino in Cha Cha Real Smooth. The actress has recently made a series of excellent career choices in front of and behind the camera (she is one of the producers). Johnson’s quiet, melancholy Domino has lived through her 20s while Andrew has only started his, but the two apparent opposites are drawn together through several curious similarities. To Cha Cha Real Smooth’s great benefit and the viewer’s relief, Raiff skips anything like a psychological assessment or explanation, but one can easily discern that both Andrew and Domino are longtime caregivers who labor emotionally to meet the needs of the other before the needs of the self.

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Cha Cha Real Smooth values the connections (and the temporary disconnections) between people deeply and unfailingly committed to each other. Mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and step-parents are all integral moving parts in Raiff’s well-calibrated machine. If coming-of-age stories are your catnip, and you enjoy the secondhand embarrassment of painfully awkward social interactions, and you ache at the bittersweet hopelessness of right place-wrong time sparks, then make a date with Cha Cha Real Smooth.

Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.