I keep forgetting I’m around children.
The critiques are legitimate. Cooper Raiff‘s latest film Cha Cha Real Smooth does feel like it was created by a sophisticated AI with protocols to produce the perfect indie darling for mass appeal, emotional resonance, and potential awards glory. That doesn’t, however, mean it doesn’t succeed at doing all those things in a way that transcends whatever ambitions or intent went into it. Whether the quirky humor, swooning heartache, or endearingly sweet characters, there are more moments that deserve an eyeroll than I can probably count, but it’s not because I’m bad at math. It’s because Raiff has put them together in a way that allows them to be honest and true. Yes, it’s a stylized and convenient twenty-something coming-of-age tale. But it works incredibly well.
Part of it stems from the decision to flip the usual romantic comedy script. Rather than be about the guy and girl who come together against all odds to share this magnificent love together, it’s about the maturity of seeing beneath the satisfaction of the moment to realize our desire for fantasy isn’t so easily transformed into reality. We see it right at the start too with twelve-year-old Andrew (Javien Mercado) telling his mother (Leslie Mann) that he’s in love … with the twenty-something Bar Mitzvah party host (Kelly O’Sullivan‘s Bella). Mom knows his confidence and naivete is going to break him, but she lets him approach her anyway because he deserves to act on his desire. He must also learn, however, that doing so risks heavy disappointment.
It thankfully doesn’t deter Andrew, now twenty-two (Raiff) and aimlessly searching for direction post-college. His girlfriend is in Barcelona on a Fulbright scholarship, and he says he’s going to join her. The question is whether he should, though. Would it be to simply maintain a status quo out of fear of starting over? Would doing so ultimately ruin her experience because suddenly he’s interjected himself—with no real plans or purpose for being there beyond her—and thus forced her to compromise her own desires to satisfy his? Of course. She knows it. His mother knows it. He knows it too. It’s why discovering all her Instagram photos feature an unknown mystery man doesn’t move him to tears. Because let’s face it: Andrew is most definitely a crier.
His ability to remain stoic is helped by another unforeseen development too: Domino (Dakota Johnson) and Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). The former is the thirty-something mother of the latter’s autistic teen who’s been held back a few years into Andrew’s twelve-year-old brother’s (Evan Assante‘s David) class. As such, the two are invited to the town’s annual Bar/Bat Mitzvah scene as every Jewish boy and girl in their grade comes of age. It’s there that a bit of fate thrusts the former lovelorn Andrew into the role held by his former “love” Bella. Seeing how boring the party was proving (he was chaperoning his brother), Andrew’s extrovert takes it upon himself to inject some life into the event. That includes coaxing Lola’s usual wallflower onto the dance floor.
It’s the type of gesture that renders Andrew a celebrity overnight. All the Jewish mothers accost him to host their parties. Women he went to high school with suddenly find him attractive (Odeya Rush‘s Macy). And Domino can’t help but be won over by the first stranger in a long time to treat her daughter like a human being rather than an incapable child. Andrew is, unfortunately, still a child himself too, though, and his nice guy sensitivity is only half of a personality that tends to over-drink and let a volatile temper turn those heroics sour. He’s fiercely loyal to his own detriment and perhaps proves initial assumptions wrong where it comes to still following his desires. Maybe he avoids them, latching onto those of others instead.
Is Andrew therefore falling in love with Domino? Or does he see himself as an answer to the woes he has projected upon her? It’s not that he’s wrong to read signals the way he does. She’s obviously interested (Raiff and Johnson’s rapport and chemistry is electric), but she’s also engaged. Joseph (Raúl Castillo) is just always out of town for work and Domino struggles to keep afloat (not that she’d change anything since she loves Lola completely). So, Andrew does find himself playing hero. Their burgeoning friendship does find itself at risk of crossing certain uncrossable lines. But the lust and charm and infectious joy are a product of more than two people colliding. It’s about where their lives are. It’s about their numerous fears and hopes.
That’s where Cha Cha Real Smooth‘s ability to overcome its audience’s prejudices or expectations shines brightest. Raiff has written his film with his characters’ best interests at heart because he knows that’s the only way honesty and authenticity can prevail. Andrew and Domino may need nothing more in this moment but than other, but that doesn’t mean the same will be true tomorrow. The excitement and attraction they feel (physically and emotionally) is neither a mirage nor an answer, but it does lead them to one. Maybe it’s together. Maybe it’s not. Either way, their decisions are being made with more than impulse or instant gratification in the driver’s seat. Andrew is still lost. Domino has already been found. And they’re each other’s evidence proving both things true.
Raiff expertly weaves multiple subplots to parallel and infer upon this central dynamic. There’s Stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett) being a rock for Andrew’s mom despite not being “cool” enough to earn the respect he deserves. There’s David needing his big brother to help him traverse the waters of his own young love. And there’s Joseph too. This is a character that we are trained to hate because of the preconceptions that come from telling the film through Andrew’s perspective. He’s the man who’s seemingly letting Domino down. The man we’re supposed to want Andrew to push out of the way. Yet Joseph delivers one of the most heartfelt and memorable moments of the entire film because Raiff understands we create villains in our heads that don’t actually exist.
So much of what holds us back is in fact ourselves. We’re prone to pretending to be people we aren’t either to hide our truths from the world or hide ourselves. Sometimes it’s also a defense from bullies—the kind of reactionary shield that ultimately turns us into the bully (see Andrew’s treatment of Greg). For whatever reason, Andrew and Domino shatter those façades and remind each other of who they can be removed from the noise. He can be fun. She can be free. That ease can make them second guess things and wonder “what if?” But it can also give them the strength to fix themselves for what they already have as an external system shock to reset their present and stop fearing the future.
 Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” premiering June 17, 2022 on Apple TV+.
 Odeya Rush and Cooper Raiff in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” premiering June 17, 2022 on Apple TV+.
 Leslie Mann, Cooper Raiff and Brad Garrett in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” premiering June 17, 2022 on Apple TV+.