by Nuha Hassan
Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth can be described as a will-they-or-won’t-they love story, but the essence of the story is about a post-college adult trying to figure his life out. Andrew’s (Raiff) life isn’t perfect. A textbook “nice guy” and a real smooth talker, he gets a chance to bond with Domino (Dakota Johnson), a young mother and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), and through this, he learns to discover parts about himself. Raiff directs, writes, and stars in this enjoyable and remarkable story of an adult fresh out of college in an unconventional story.
When his girlfriend moves to Barcelona to study on a full scholarship, Andrew works as a cashier at a dead-end job at the mall restaurant. Unable to make ends meet, he moves back into his step-father’s (Brad Garrett) home to live with his warmhearted mother (Leslie Mann), who suffers from bipolar disorder, and his brother David (Evan Assante). While escorting David to a bat mitzvah party, Andrew takes it into his own hands to spice up the bash and get up on the dancefloor. He approaches an autistic girl Lola (Burghardt), whose mother Domino (Johnson) bets him $300 that she won't dance with him, and manages to charm her and convinces her to dance. This gesture secures Domino’s attention and several other Jewish mothers who want him to be the motivational party dancer, which means getting teenagers to dance at the bat mitzvah. Later, Andrew agrees to babysit Lola because Domino is certain that he won’t treat her like a child, and their companionship begins to lead through uncharted territories.
Cha Cha Real Smooth explores the struggles of a post-college adult navigating his life. He has no aspirations in life and has no idea what he wants to do. In the early scenes of the movie, when his girlfriend asks what he’s going to do after college, he promises that he will go to Barcelona with her to spend more time with each other. Andrew is characterised as someone who gives more than he should, and by setting his goal to leave for Barcelona seems like a long shot, considering he has no job and no money. When he sees his girlfriend’s Instagram posts next to some guy, he tries to change his lifestyle by exercising, but he fails. Andrew seeks to please people without putting himself first and even if it comes off as thoughtful or considerate, it doesn’t make the central character all that interesting.
But Andrew’s infatuation with Domino turns into a flirtation. While she is a bit older, devoted to her daughter’s life, and committed to her relationship with her fiance (Raúl Castillo), Andrew opens up the door for her to be youthful. The possibility of going through the motions of the 20s again with someone younger, and even if Andrew’s age doesn’t throw her off, she doesn’t show it. Andrew’s personality and carefree attitude make her feel safe, but she doesn’t open up to people due to her memories. They are not perfect together, and Domino doesn’t dare sabotage her relationship with her fiance to leave everything for Andrew, even when she tries to test her limits with him. Domino’s story and character are one of the many aspects that is interesting in the movie. Johnson is magnetic and immediately captures the audience’s attention. Her chemistry with Raiff and Burghardt is undeniably amazing.
Cha Cha Real Smooth isn’t about the sacrifices Domino has to make but rather, how it affects Andrew in the process. By the time the movie ends, Andrew has figured out his life and prospects, however, Andrew is still flawed. Sometimes he makes mistakes, which hurts people who mean a lot to him. He’s not a hero and he’s not a saint, he’s more of a man-child that eventually figures out this life. Raiff’s performance, while as a self-assured Andrew, introduces a new form of the open-hearted and inherent vulnerability on screen. In one of the scenes, after he finds Domino in the bathroom covered in blood, he goes out of his way to help her, even though they had met only twice then. He doesn’t ask any questions or make any judgements, even though his life is not so perfect. The implications of a messy human, who cries and makes mistakes serve as an archetype for heterosexual masculinity, but all of this is deemed as a natural response from the people around him. It’s rare to see these archetypes being presented on screen, especially when it comes to normalising emotional availability. Also, the exploration of the coming-of-age genre and how the characters around Andrew do not try to shame or laugh at him and instead, show a more non-judgemental look at how young adults navigate life.
On the other hand, Domino’s characterisation is thoughtful and Johnson’s performance is extremely enjoyable to watch. For years, Domino has been afraid of being vulnerable with someone and due to this, she has made many sacrifices to make herself and Lola’s life better. When Andrew comes into their lives, it opens a new barrier of youthfulness and hopes that she had once found many years ago. But Domino understands the struggles of life and the sacrifices she has made, whereas Andrew is yet to learn of them. Whenever she is with Andrew, whether in their kitchen or on the dancefloor, she begins to observe her feelings and tests the limits of her feelings. It’s an imbalanced relationship and Domino is never going to find the kind of stability that she needs in her life for her family. It’s a bittersweet truth that is embedded into the film’s narrative.
Regardless, the downside of Cha Cha Real Smooth is that Andrew is the least interesting person in the story. Even when Andrew shines during his job, there are moments when he is inexplicably the worst person in the room. He’s miserable, insecure, lashes out at his step-father, gets into fights with people, and yells at David when he asks for dating advice. He apologises, but the bar is so low. It’s another story of a young “nice guy” deconstructing his life, and how many of these have been written in Hollywood already? It seems that even though the character is written to be a likeable and different person, he’s just characterised as a “nice guy” and a misfit who acknowledges his mistakes. Cha Cha Real Smooth doesn’t have a happy ending, and the movie firmly stands that characters are never going to get the girl. It’s a charming story, but the movie is only remarkable when the other characters are on the screen with Andrew. Perhaps the only way to move on with movies such as this is to create more diverse coming-of-age stories that don’t focus on the Andrew’s of the world. This genre of “nice guy” tales isn’t challenging or unique storytelling. Being a messy human, who hasn’t got their life figured out is fine! Unfortunately, this genre is tiring and overwritten, and there’s no room to actually sympathise with Andrew’s actions due to his complicated emotional underdevelopment.