Movie review: Cha Cha Real Smooth

(courtesy First Showing)

Pretty all of us, at some time or another in our lives, have felt rudderless and lost, uncertain of who we are, what we want or where to head next.

Those sorts of trapped in the wilderness periods can realistically strike at any time but as Cooper Raiff’s artfully tender and softly funny film, Cha Cha Real Smooth (currently streaming on Apple TV+) makes beautifully and affectingly clear, it is most likely to strike in that messy period between childhood and striding confidently into adulthood, otherwise known as your late teens and early-to-mid-twenties.

Messy in this case is not necessarily a negative; it’s really just a state of being, the end result of not knowing often which way is up, which is down and which direction the rest of your life lies in wait.

Life for 22-year-old Andrew (Cooper Raiff, who wrote and directed the film), newly graduated from college with a communications degree and separated from his soulmate Maya (Amara Pedroso Saquel) who has gone to Barcelona on a Fulbright Scholarship all while quietly but firmly encouraging him not to follow her, is chaotic, a mélange of a soul-destroying fast food restaurant job, bunking in his brother David’s (Evan Assante) bedroom at his mum (Leslie Mann) and stepdad Greg’s (Brad Garrett) place and a love life that feels caught in furiously dissatisfying limbo.

Life has well and truly moved on but Andrew has twigged to that yet – to be fair, it’s entirely natural to hold tight to what was when what might be is fuzzy and frustratingly out of reach – and as the film starts he is an emotional washing machine, upbeat with his brother and mother, snarky to Greg (who treats his mother with real love and care, something Andrew doesn’t want to acknowledge) and unsure of what to do next.

Some glimmer of a next step emerges when he takes David to a bar mitzvah, one of a legion of events for the 13-year-olds of his hometown – the bar and bat mitzvahs are a big deal, celebrated with professional DJs, massive decorations, and a massive guest list – decides to get everyone in the party mood to winning effects and finds himself launching a business as the Jig Conductor, effectively a party starter using his charm and gift of the gab to get everyone on the dancefloor.

It’s at this first bar mitzvah, one of many, some of which go better than others, that Andrews meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), a single mum engaged to the taciturn, emotionally indeterminate Joseph (Raúl Castillo) who daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) is on the autism spectrum, and who is not comfortable in any social setting but especially ones as intense as the bar and bat mitzvahs.

In his role as unofficial party starter at this event, Andrew gently and with great sweetness and care convinces Lola to go onto the dancefloor, a miracle of such rarity that he strikes up a friendship with a surprised Domino who wants to marry Joseph and settle down into an adult life with known parameters and a deep sense of certainty, but is struggling with what this will mean to the options and possibilities that have glittered before her.

They are both teetering on the precipice of the inked-in certainties of the rest of their lives but Domino is far further ahead than Andrew, something which contributes to keeping Andrew at arm’s length emotionally even if she flirts a great many times with pursuing something more substantial with him.

A meditatively thoughtful film full of warm humour, snappy dialogue and huge empathetic understanding of the grey, ill-defined parts of our lives, Cha Cha Real Smooth rather adroitly and affectingly conveys what it feels when life has no form or definition, or at least not enough for our liking and how it makes sense that two people in that place, though to considerably varying degrees, gravitate towards one another.

What shines through again and again is how thoroughly lovely Andrew is; he’s not perfect by any means, and makes more than few mistakes on his way to finding his first tentative steps to the rest of his life, but he’s basically a good and decent human being, his quality of character making it abundantly clear that having a messy life is not necessarily a sign of a deficient human being.

It’s an important point because people are too quick to judge someone in a lacklustre job or without a place of their own as lacking in some vitally important social attribute; the truth is, however, that even the finest of us stumble on the rock road of existential uncertainty, and that less about the worth of who we are and more about the small-minded judgementalism of those looking on from the cheap seats of an organised life.

Andrew’s a good guy, Domino’s a loving, caring mum, neither of them broken human being in need of fixing; they’re just, in their own ways, looking for the next step forward, one of them possessing no idea what this looks like while the other knows but is afraid to go down just in case it cuts off other possibilities.

Watching Cha Cha Real Smooth you get a beautiful sense of what it means to find a kindred soul in your corner when it seems no one really gets what’s happening to you.

Sure, Andrew has his supportive mum and is heartwarmingly close to his younger brother, but even so he is alone in his lostness so when he meets Domino who gets what’s going on for him because she’s about to leave that place even if she is a little hesitant to do so, it makes sense they draw closer and closer until …?

Honestly that is one or two spoilers too far, so we won’t go there, but suffice to say that Cha Cha Real Smooth does an exemplarily moving and sweetly funny job of defying expectations, going real and deep about what it means to be human when everything’s unnervingly indistinct, and painting a beautiful picture of connection and belonging and holding your nerve wherever you are in life because, anxiety aside, and yes it can be corrosively unsettling at the time, you will find your way out and when you do, well, it will likely be nothing like you imagined and precisely what you need at the time.

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