7/10 Time is doing its thing. Cooper Raiff is a Dallas native who’s five years younger than I am, I drive past his high school a few times a week, and he made one of the biggest deals in Sundance history this year when he sold his second feature, Cha Cha Real Smooth, to Apple TV+ for $15 million. This is the first up-and-coming director of the TikTok generation, and this is what he’s making.
Livingston, New Jersey- Fresh college graduate Andrew (Raiff, who writes, directs and produces) moves back into his step-father’s house. Knowing nothing about what he wants to do with his life, Andrew enters the apparently cutthroat underground world of bar mitzvah DJing, where he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson, who also produces) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Andrew resents his step-father, Greg (Brad Garrett), advises his younger brother, David (Evan Assante), as he develops interest in girls, pines for his college girlfriend moved on to bigger and better things and navigates his quickly developing attraction to the engaged Domino.
It’s a concerted effort not to look at Cha Cha Real Smooth like a drawing on the refrigerator door, condescending to blog from the cheapest one-bedroom I could find like that’s some position of authority about a Sundance smash hit just because the director is younger than me. If it were on the refrigerator, it wouldn’t be there out of courtesy. It’s good work.
The boldest technical choice is Cha Cha Real Smooth’s choppy editing. Henry Hayes’ cuts seem to jump across slightly longer chasms than those of most films, tying different scenes together more tightly across time in transitions that are often jarring, but work deceptively well. The dialogue is sharp, human and confrontational, and the whole cast is spectacular, especially Johnson and Raiff. There are a lot of striking shots with bold colors and compositions, and the abrupt editing allows the movie to stay on the sound stage, where the background can be kept colorful.
Cha Cha Real Smooth explores the perception and reality of happiness through the weighted perspective of its lead and several parallel characters. Andrew pines for a life he vaguely sees with a fulfilling job and the girl he isn’t over, and the film’s most important conflicts come from him taking these feelings out on the people around him in whom he sees complacency, or worse, the risk of his own failure to attain the life of his dreams. He’s most aggressive with Greg, but he also approaches Domino and his mother, Lisa (Leslie Mann), for their same failure to live up to his standard of ambition.
Lisa is married to a man with a stable income with whom she seems quite in love but doesn’t demonstrate outward passion for, and Domino, with a teenage daughter but still young and tameless, is engaged to one whom she’s sleeping around on. Andrew doesn’t make sense of Domino’s mixed feelings and doesn’t believe his mother when she says she’s happy. At one point that I’d argue is the movie’s climax, a drunken Andrew tells Greg directly that he doesn’t want to end up unhappy like him, and Greg, with a good job and family who he loves, can only look at Andrew like he’s grown a second head.
There’s a lot of incongruities that get in the way of Cha Cha Real Smooth becoming a top-tier offering. It’s got that signature indie vibe of trying to be sarcastic and heart-felt at the same time that almost never works – crucially, DJ Casper’s classic step aerobics banger “The Cha-Cha Slide” is not played, or if it is, it isn’t in a position of prominence. Raiff’s treatise on dating in the ‘20s in your 20s beautifully captures the age and the era while also seeming to not fully grasp it.
The biggest contradiction is Andrew personally, who is both mature enough to handle his covert pursuit of Domino with grace and sensitivity and is great with her kid, but immature enough that he won’t let go of that college girl. This way of applying different parts of yourself to different relationships is real and human, but it rings artificial when he’s written and framing this fool for himself to play.
If Raiff is the vanguard of a new generation of filmmakers, the zoomer voice comes out in Cha Cha Real Smooth’s extreme focus on mental illness – but not really on mental illness. Characters come prepared with their lists of duly diagnosed learning disorders, which the children of the Ritalin generation have been taught to wear like badges in some moments and pillories in others.
Obviously, I think there’s a lot more to sensitively portraying mental illnesses than using medically accurate terminology early and often – the contrast between mental illness in practice and as a static diagnosis is as clear as ever in the film. Lola is bullied by her peers and has been held back three grades in school, compounding her social difficulties, but with a doctor’s blessing, she may call her problems “autism” and externalize them, as if they aren’t really part of her. Domino, on the other hand, must confront her hypersexuality and risk-taking behavior and the unhappiness that underlies them without that barrier.
Perhaps the core problem with Cha Cha Real Smooth is Raiff trying to capture and own a youthful dissatisfaction from hindsight before it’s really in his own hindsight – much like Andrew himself, the film wants to be wiser than it is, instead of fully embracing its wildness and disaffection. That’s fine. He’s got a bright future that he’s already hard at work on.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is streaming on Apple TV+.