Cooper Raiff once again masters coming-of-age genre with ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

Sage Dunlap, Life & Arts Reporter

In 2020, Dallas-born director Cooper Raiff solidified his presence in the indie film scene after his first full-length feature film, “Shithouse,” received widespread acclaim. Two years later, the 25-year-old filmmaker returns with his follow-up film, “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” this time with a larger budget and star-studded cast.

After winning the Sundance Audience Award in January, the tender coming-of-age drama received a $15 million deal with Apple TV+ and took to the streaming platform on June 17. The award-winning film tells the story of Andrew (Raiff), a loveable but aimless twenty-something who struggles to find direction after graduating from college. 

Upon returning home to complicated family dynamics, Andrew grows closer to his 13-year-old brother as they bond over girl troubles and a shared distaste for their stepfather. After taking on an oddball second job as a bar mitzvah party energizer, Andrew strikes up an odd relationship with Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her preteen daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). The 22-year-old finds himself babysitting Lola, but ultimately forms a deeper emotional connection with the engaged mother. By navigating his romantic feelings while taking on a mentor role to Lola, Andrew embarks on a journey of self-exploration backdropped by a jumbled series of bar and bat mitzvah parties. 

The larger-than-life, warmhearted Andrew and quiet, melancholy Domino play off one another beautifully on screen. Their contrasting lifestyles and personalities make for an unexpected but lovable pairing. While Domino, the seemingly troubled mother in a loveless engagement, finds herself attracted to Andrew’s youth and optimistic nature, Andrew finds in Domino a maturity and decisiveness he seeks as a post-grad 22-year-old. The pair form a misguided connection through a shared lack of direction and romantic attention, but ultimately decide their large age gap and different lifestyles make a relationship nonsensical. Raiff and Johnson deliver stunning performances together, portraying a subtle but powerful display of budding love.

That being said, audiences should not expect a grand ensemble story, but instead a focused, intimate narrative about Andrew himself. The film addresses many daunting themes tied to other characters, such as Domino’s miscarriage and Andrew’s mother’s bipolar disorder, but ultimately only divulges into how these events affect the main characters. Despite a shallow investigation of other characters’ feelings and motives, the film’s central focus on Andrew’s perspective does not hinder the film’s ability to deliver a stunning coming-of-age narrative about self-discovery.

In “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” Raiff cements himself as a master of the coming-of-age genre. In a film where 22-year-old Andrew interacts with very few people his own age — sharing the screen primarily with middle schoolers or adults — Raiff communicates the common struggle of navigating one’s early twenties with a poignant, vulnerable victory. With two full-length films under his belt, audiences should keep an eye out for the young filmmaker in coming years.

4 birthday presents out of 5