Banal, broad Sundance film “Cha Cha Real Smooth” goes down easy

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Rating: 2.5/5.0

Similar to his directorial debut “Shithouse,” “Cha Cha Real Smooth” finds writer-director Cooper Raiff playing a sentimental, dorky and sensitive young adult — essentially a semi-autobiographical version of himself — at a transitional stage of his life. While the former feature centers Raiff as an alienated college freshman who falls in love with his resident advisor, the latter just barely widens its dramatic scope outside of the collegiate bubble, portraying Raiff as a recent college graduate who likewise falls in love with an emotionally unavailable older woman. However, while Raiff’s penchant for earnestness remains a grounding force behind “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” the novelty of his sincerity and emotional subjectivity has mostly worn off, his portrayal of liminality more vaguely delineated and less insightful and critically self-reflexive than it purports to be.

In “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” Raiff plays Andrew, a 22-year-old Tulane University graduate who returns to Livingston, a New Jersey suburb. Andrew idealistically hopes to save up enough money to live with his college girlfriend in Barcelona, pining for her while stuck in a job at a fast food restaurant and hoping to work at a nonprofit. When he heads to a bat mitzvah with his younger brother David (Evan Assante), Andrew comes across a thirty-something woman named Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her teenage daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), both of whom he takes an instant liking to. At the bat mitzvah, Andrew livens up the dance floor with his energy and exuberance and helps Lola, who has autism, enjoy her time at the celebration, his earnest attempts to bond with her proving to be fruitful. In one night, he earns the affection of the mothers in the community and the favor of Domino and Lola, developing an emotional connection with Domino and becoming Lola’s part-time babysitter.

One has little sense of what Andrew’s worldview is, what his interests are or who he really is beyond his ostensible virtue and niceness, a defining quality of his that is repeatedly confirmed by supporting characters in the film and primarily emphasized through his desire to work at a nonprofit organization. Even Andrew’s supposed flaws, which should add texture to his character, only underscore this goodness. He becomes angry at Lola’s bullies, drinks a little too much on the job and briefly kicks someone else’s lawn, but all these vices in context are really just examples of his virtue — almost as if he is a paragon of a dating profile that says one’s flaw is that that they are too giving, too sincere and too devoted. 

Unlike in his debut film, which chiefly focuses on two main characters, Raiff’s second project features a larger ensemble. However, while most characters are definingly etched, they are also thinly conceived and unvaryingly uncomplicated even when given moving scenes to work with. A few characters are drawn with certain dramatic details that should enhance their range, as is the case with Andrew’s mother Lisa (Leslie Mann). She is noted to be bipolar, but this plays more like a throwaway detail rather than as an attribute that complicates the role she serves in the film. The bipolar experience is flattened in favor of Lisa being a supportive mother who fits into the mechanical confines of Andrew’s conventional, familiar narrative. A notable exception to this is with the character of Lola, as Burghardt adds characteristic texture to her role through a unique, specific performance that reflects her lived experience on the spectrum.

One particularly fascinating thread in the film is how Andrew’s interest in Domino mirrors the care he has for his mother; the two women share an inclination towards depression, a quality which opposes Andrew’s spirited disposition. This adds a peculiar dimension to Andrew’s relationship with Domino, suggesting that he is drawn to her particularly because he can understand her in a way he could not understand his mother when he was a child. But, because the film stitches together a lot of differing threads while also sticking to easy characterizations and a rigid coming-of-age narrative, this potentially messy, complex narrative underpinning receives little attention even when further elaboration would strengthen the believability and development of the film’s central relationship. 

As such, even when “Cha Cha Real Smooth” aims to be poignant, it instead feels facile and expected.

Contact Hafsah Abbasi at [email protected].