There has been no shortage of films over the years that deal with characters coming of age, though the majority of them have centered around young teens. That being said though, there have been a number of classics dealing with young men and women taking their first steps toward full-fledged adulthood. I’m thinking of REBEL WITHOUT CAUSE, THE GRADUATE and DEAD POET’S SOCIETY, to name just a few. LADYBIRD and FRANCES HA are two recent examples, though perhaps not in the same league as the others, but they are particularly relevant here because writer-director-actress Greta Gerwig has been cited as one of Cooper Raiff’s artistic influences. Who’s Cooper Raiff, you ask? He’s the 25-year-old writer, director and star of CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH, which is getting very warm reviews from both critics and audiences.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH tells the story of Andrew (Raiff, S#!%HOUSE), a 22-year-old who has recently moved back home to New Jersey after graduating university. Andrew doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life other than making enough money to travel to Barcelona where his girlfriend is completing her Fulbright scholarship, so he takes a job at a local fast food joint. One day, his mother (Leslie Mann, THIS IS 40) and stepfather (Brad Garrett, TV’s EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) ask him to take his 12-year-old brother David (Evan Assante) to a bar mitzvah party for them. When Andrew sees that the kids are all too self-conscious to get up and start dancing, he steps up and encourages them all to the dance floor with his exuberance and charisma. With the party now in full swing, Andrew hears his friends talking about Domino (Dakota Johnson, THE LOST DAUGHTER; THE HIGH NOTE; THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON), a MILFy single mom who is there with her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt, who is also autistic). Domino doesn’t think Andrew can get Lola up dancing but, when he does, all the other mothers there take notice and hire Andrew as a party starter for their upcoming events. Domino sees that Lola feels comfortable around Andrew so she hires him to sit for her when she goes out with her fiancé, Joseph, a lawyer who spends a lot of time out of town. Andrew starts to develop feelings for Domino but she is committed to Joseph, even though their relationship has its problems.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and it’s easy to see why. It’s got a great balance of humour and pathos, and Raiff shines as Andrew, who is a good guy who makes some dumb choices — much like Gerwig’s Frances does — but who doesn’t at that age? Where the film loses points with me is the casting and the script, which have a number of problems. For starters, I had to keep reminding myself that Andrew is 22 because he looks about 30. Raiff was 23 when the film was shot but he looks much older. Perhaps he wasn’t the best choice for this role but the budget was tight. Raiff also introduces plot points that don’t go anywhere (like his mother’s bipolar disorder), though they may have been lost on the cutting room floor, and situations that just wouldn’t happen in real life (like his getting time off so soon after starting a new job, and being an immature jerk during his interview and still getting hired). Johnson, who deserves major respect for continuing to take on interesting projects, does all she can with her character, which is rather underdeveloped. Again, it might be an editing issue. As a whole though, CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH is an admirable second film from this very talented young man. Even before the film premiered at Sundance, it was announced that his next project would be directing David Harbour (BLACK WIDOW, TV’s STRANGER THINGS) in THE TRASHERS. That project is currently in pre-production so we probably won’t be seeing it until 2024.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH is streaming now on AppleTV+. It’s not a perfect film but, like Gerwig was just a few years ago, Raiff is a talent you need to keep your eyes out for.
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