‘You only have you. How scary. But how amazing.’
I am yet to have a conversation with someone who has also seen Cooper Raiff’s 2022 indie film Cha Cha Real Smooth. It might be that I’m speaking to the wrong people because it has had critical recognition, winning awards such as the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022. Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to have a conversation with someone about it, and I pity those who haven’t experienced this coming-of-age film that’s perfect for those who are just as confused and uncertain about navigating early adulthood as the film’s protagonist.
Writer-director Cooper Raiff tells the story of a 22 two year old, college-grad on the precipice of adulthood who marries together the innocence of childhood, with the seriousness of looming adult responsibility. Confused and entirely relatable, Andrew, played by Raiff himself, decides to immerse himself into the Bar Mitzvah parties his brother attends, where he not only meets single mother, Domino, played by Dakota Johnson, but also finds himself profiting off becoming the party entertainer. He begins as a passive character with no prospects for the future except to travel to Barcelona and reunite with his ex-girlfriend. The script is charmingly funny as Andrew figures out the trajectory of his life. Mental health is subtly depicted with honest and unfiltered dialogue that realistically reflects the perpetual, yet quiet presence it holds in our lives.
Dakota Johnson reveals Raiff’s meaning behind the title Cha Cha Real Smooth during an interview on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, stating that ‘it’s the part of the song where you do your own dance.’ This idea encapsulates Andrew’s journey, as he begins to realise that his childhood years are now behind him. There is a bittersweet optimism about the film that presents this daunting coming-of-age moment as a frightening, yet liberating moment of committing and embracing your own ‘dance.’ Andrew’s position as party entertainer ironically illuminates his struggle to embrace his own life, as the playful setting and childhood innocence contrasts and distracts from the imposed expectations of attaining financial and mental stability. It bridges the gap between childhood and adulthood which reflects that stage in life where you feel neither like a child nor like an adult. The time in one’s life where a past understanding of that label is dismantled and questioned to be a mere incorrect presumption. Now being what one would call an ‘adult,’ you wonder whether the whole ‘adult’ thing is a just a game of playing pretend, and everyone really is just big kids getting wrinkles. The film explores these questions and feelings through reflecting a tension between a youthful playfulness, and sense of duty that Andrew mediates between when he meets Domino.
Raiff’s acting, producing and directing is accompanied by the cast’s emotive performances. Leslie Mann, playing Andrew’s mother, achieves no less than her typical entertaining and humorous performances. Her character demonstrates an over-bearing desire to nurture your child, which transforms with the realisation that one must helplessly surrender to allow for the child to necessarily dance to their own beat.
Dakota Johnson gives an endearing and vulnerable performance that perfectly blends both childish playfulness and cynical maturity into her layered and tangled character. The slow unravelling of her and Andrew’s situational relationship adds to the dismantling of his naïve innocence with the depiction questioning how perspectives of love and self-hood change with age and time. Other performances from Evan Assante and Vanessa Burghardt are equally as truthful and an overall joy to watch.
Raiff’s wry dialogue assists his character’s intriguing layers that reflect the bitter sweetness of growing up. The film feels like a reassuring embrace, but without the sugar coating. It illuminates that not everything right, always feels good. The transition from childhood dependence to adult independence is mirrored truthfully as a harbinger of uncertainty and fear but is encouraged to be viewed as an exciting, free opportunity; the time to finally dance to your own dance.
I recommend this film to anyone who hates shutting doors to the past. To people who find sentimentality in a receipt from when they were thirteen that they don’t really know where it was from, but they know they can’t get rid of it. To anyone between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five specifically, maybe even older? To those people, this film reimagines anxious uncertainty towards the future into a fun childhood dance of possibility that is still grounded in a very realistic, and what some may even say cynical, perception of relationships and self-hood. To those people, it is as if the film lovingly holds your hand as you wave farewell to childhood. And if you don’t identify with those people, you still need to watch Cha Cha Real Smooth because Cooper Raiff and the whole cast give amazing performances in an all-around enjoyable and emotive film.
Words: Madison Stein