The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Director’s AppleTV+ Dramedy.
Cooper Raiff is moving up on independent film scene. On the one hand, many film aficionados consider him to be the next great auteur filmmaker, a true millennial’s version of a Richard Linklater with the writing sensibilities of Mike Mills. On the other hand, although many others do admit to admiring his efforts and seeing the work he does as beneficial to the scope of American popular movie culture, they also think the 25-year-old may be a little in over his head with his sophomore effort. Cha Cha Real Smooth, an AppleTV+ movie and bona fide Sundance sensation which sold to the service for $15 million in January, finds the Shithouse director operating at a larger level than with his debut (also a Sundance hit), operating with a higher budget and a more comprehensive story, if not a holistic one.
The charms of Cha Cha are simple, almost deceptively so if one’s eye isn’t trained to spot just what makes the movie so damn likeable, but nonetheless effective. Cooper Raiff’s charisma as lead character Andrew is simply undeniable as he navigates his character’s life post-college, wondering if he’ll go anywhere he actually wants to go or do anything that’s meaningful to him. He wanders around from space to space, never holding back anything in thought or practice, often to the warmth of others but occasionally to his own detriment. Early on in the film, he plans to follow his ex-girlfriend out to where she lives so he can be with her, despite not really seeming all that passionate about it. His post-school life, like many others’, has turned him into a wanderer with no real sense of what his purpose is, so he seeks it in other people, most evidently in his relationship to his younger brother. Conversely, Dakota Johnson’s Domino, a down-spirited mom with an autistic daughter, who seems to be holding so much inside with her husband absent on a case in Chicago, knows exactly what and who is most meaningful to her, and is at the point in her life where going where she wants would mean having to give part of her life up that she’s worked so hard to build and to foster as a purposeful thing. Spontaneity isn’t really in her vocabulary, nor is freedom from obligation. When the two meet at a bar mitzvah, the unlikely friendship they form feels as though the need between the two of them could blossom into something more meaningful for both, but Cha Cha isn’t especially interested in romancing you. Instead, it hopes to explore how love is far from as simple as falling into it, as much as one might want to. Wants can only take a human being so far before needs get in the way, and having the two collide for even a brief time is far more special than only ever having one or the other. Rather than being solely about finding purpose, the film also finds the beauty in releasing oneself of it.
As Andrew takes on a job as a party starter for the bar mitzvahs he attends (bar mitzvahs that Domino and her daughter also happen to be at, mostly), he takes on a second task, watching Lola – that’s Domino’s daughter – so that Domino can go out, be away, experience freedom not from obligations or responsibilities, but from purpose. Domino’s entire purpose to this point has been raising Lola, caring for Lola, ensuring Lola’s safety and happiness, so much so that she never seemed to think about doing the same things for herself. As Andrew and Lola (played by scene-stealer Vanessa Burghardt) become closer over time in one of the film’s sweetest subplots, Andrew too begins to feel closer to Domino, but that closeness isn’t reciprocated in quite the way Andrew may wish it to be, though Domino certainly isn’t averse to the closeness Andrew so clearly wants. But if Domino is the purpose Andrew seeks, it’s born of passion. Andrew being the escape from purpose that Domino needs and come to accept is born of love. This is what makes Cha Cha so special, beyond it simply being a more technically proficient film than Shithouse (it’s smoother, it feels more complete, the writing is that little bit better, etc.).
To understand the dichotomy between passion and love is not so much a challenge in practice as it is a tough thing to translate in storytelling. Writing that conflict with nuance so that no one seems the villain or the hero is such a difficult thing to do in moviemaking, especially when absent parties to the film’s main conflict – such as Domino’s husband – could so easily be made the villains or the ones our protagonist must overcome. The only thing there is to overcome in Andrew or Domino’s lives is their individual unwillingness to accept what they need unless they can get it from each other, and Cooper Raiff’s thoroughly nuanced script seems to understand near-perfectly that what each of them truly need is to pursue those needs of their own accord, not simply vicariously through other people.
Cha Cha Real Smooth may not be the strongest film of the year thus far or even the best thing AppleTV+ has ever put out, but it is proof positive that the service knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to acquisitions and that Cooper Raiff – however one feels about this film as a follow-up to Shithouse – is certainly heading in the right direction as a filmmaker. Directionally, the film does sometimes get away from him a little bit, but the writing and performances bring it all back by the end. He has all the talent he needs to eventually become one of the indie greats, and the more tools he has at his disposal, the better. It’s fairly rare to see someone so in the spirit of Linklater continue to be more than simply a pale imitation of the Dazed and Confused scribe, and Raiff’s personal spin on the stories he tells is a record I want to keep on listening to for a little while longer.
I’m giving “Cha Cha Real Smooth” an 8.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.