By Greg Carlson
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is writer/director/actor Cooper Raiff’s follow-up to “Shithouse,” and the titles of both films disguise, or at least misdirect, the earnest and heartfelt positivity of Raiff’s hip-to-be-square worldview.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January prior to a limited theatrical run and a streaming home on Apple+ this June, feels a lot like a spiritual sequel to “Shithouse.” Raiff’s recent Tulane grad Andrew has much in common with “Shithouse” freshman Alex. Both young men (Raiff was born in 1997!) wear their hearts on their sleeves, rely on supportive moms, struggle with the “growing up is hard to do” transition into adulthood, and yearn for romances that seem to be just out of reach.
Raiff’s writing is built around the willingness of his characters to expose their vulnerabilities. Many viewers have responded enthusiastically to the filmmaker’s investment in the humane and the candid – “Shithouse” received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at South by Southwest and “Cha Cha Real Smooth” picked up an audience award at Sundance.
Others have not been convinced. Manohla Dargis, who “didn’t believe a single second” of it, blasted “Cha Cha” as “American indie entertainment at its most canned and solipsistic.” Michael Phillips, Derek Smith, and Bilge Ebiri also torched the movie, taking aim at protagonist Andrew.
Certainly, one person’s interpretation of emotional openness might be another person’s definition of what Phillips calls “creeping smugness and self-regard,” but I think Raiff is a legitimate addition to the broad group of artists identified with the New Sincerity trend as popularized by David Foster Wallace and Jim Collins (and frequently applied as a descriptor to the work of Wes Anderson).
Stylistically, Raiff is much closer to the realistic, low-budget DIY aesthetics practiced by booster/supporter Jay Duplass than he is to the painstaking miniatures imagined by Anderson, but both clearly eschew cynicism and, to paraphrase Wallace’s ideas on the subject, risk accusations of sentimentality and softness.
Dylan Gelula was brilliant opposite Raiff in “Shithouse,” and Dakota Johnson is equally beguiling as Domino in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Johnson has recently made a series of excellent career choices in front of and behind the camera (she is one of the producers of “Cha Cha”). Her quiet, melancholy Domino has lived through her 20s while Andrew has only started his, but the two apparent opposites are drawn together through several curious similarities.
To the movie’s great benefit and the viewer’s relief, Raiff skips anything like a psychological assessment or explanation, but we can easily discern that both Andrew and Domino are longtime caregivers who labor emotionally to meet the needs of the other before the needs of the self.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” values the connections (and the temporary disconnections) between people deeply and unfailingly committed to each other. Mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, and step-parents are all integral moving parts in Raiff’s well-calibrated machine.
If coming-of-age stories are your catnip, and you enjoy the secondhand embarrassment of painfully awkward social interactions, and you ache at the bittersweet hopelessness of right place-wrong time sparks, then make a date with “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”
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