Cooper Raiff‘s Cha Cha Real Smooth isn’t anything like what you’re expecting – and that’s the good part. At first glance, the film resembles something closer to Ladybird: a coming-of-age story for a twenty-something Jewish man fresh out of college and struggling to find a place for himself among his old friends. Cha Cha Real Smooth follows Andrew (Cooper Raiff) on his quest for a job, a girlfriend, and a sense of self. We first meet Andrew falling head-over-heels for the dance instructor/hype woman at an early bar mitzvah. Unfortunately for him, this first rejection by a girl almost a decade older than him is merely the first in a long line of rejections.
Watching this movie was a bizarre experience. Seeing the world through Andrew’s eyes, despite us being almost the same age, was both a jarring and revelatory experience. Everything that Andrew couldn’t see about his interactions with women, his family, or complete strangers was made transparent to the viewers. From the moment we meet him, Andrew is someone who desires a close connection with someone, and his need for attachment results in his struggle to articulate who he is. Without his college girlfriend, Andrew considers following her to Barcelona. Without his brother and mother, Andrew would never have become a fixture as a party starter for other families’ bar mitzvahs. For those of us who have never been to a bar mitzvah (or experienced a party-starter for that matter), Andrew’s job is to make sure that all the guests are happy and having a good time, preferably dancing to 80s hits on the dance floor.
His relationship to the women in his life is another experience that is equally clear. Andrew’s attachment to women is muddled and complicated from his perspective, but for us looking in, he’s too self-absorbed to listen to what they’re truly saying. From the moment that he encounters Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), his desire for self-importance dominates over their conversation, albeit in a half-charming way. Andrew’s connection to Domino and Lola drives the movie forward, but Andrew’s chronic inability to read Domino leads to his infatuation with her. While I’m sure that we were supposed to find Domino sexy and mysterious, Andrew’s lack of experience with women was the most logical conclusion from all their interactions. He treads haphazardly on the line between being respectful and being attracted to Domino, and it never occurs to him that he’s thoroughly alienated from the women he dates.
In Cha Cha Real Smooth, Andrew sees Domino (and her daughter) as his chance to define himself and separate his identity from past romantic rejections. As a child who is frequently rejected by her ableist peers, Lola becomes a one-dimensional character who Andrew uses to court Domino. When Andrew becomes Lola’s babysitter, they hit it off immediately, and Andrew’s relationship with Domino also progresses. Andrew’s affair with Domino gives him a sense of purpose for the first time since graduating. After all, here is a grown woman and mother who is sexually interested in him, who wants more from him (or so he thinks).
Their relationship, while never consummated, is intense and twisted. Although Domino shares her darkest secrets with Andrew, she’s not at all interested in what his life is like. It couldn’t be clearer that Andrew’s relationship with Domino is one-sided than when Domino’s fiance comes home from Chicago. When Andrew shows up at her house, desperate and in love, Domino’s only response is to tell Andrew just how young he is.
Andrew’s youth is what brings the movie together. He fumbles in his tumultuous relationship with his family and his step-father Greg (Brad Garrett), often ignoring their concerns in pursuit of the relationship with Domino. His mother and his step-father’s relationship is never explained, but Andrew’s relationship with his younger brother, David (Evan Assante) is what actually makes the movie worth watching. While other situations with strangers make Andrew and the other person uncomfortable, Andrew can be his truest self around his younger brother. Even when they fight, Andrew and David try to be there for each other.
While art isn’t (and shouldn’t) be for everyone, Cha Cha Real Smooth is an ideal movie for those looking for an escape into a simpler world. Andrew’s Jewishness only provides the context for his part-time job as a bar mitzvah party starter; it’s accepted as a de facto state of affairs. In fact, the world in Cha Cha Real Smooth exists in a universe outside of politics, although the prejudice against Lola still persists. In this world, however, Domino’s miscarriage would be grounds for incarceration in some states. Andrew’s mother would face stigmatization and ostracization for experiencing symptoms of her mental illness in public. Instead, in Cha Cha Real Smooth, Andrew’s mom (Leslie Mann) is still accepted among her friends and in her community, albeit after a little embarrassment.
Still, I would watch Cha Cha Real Smooth again. As someone who frequently attended bar mitzvahs over the course of my life, the movie gave me a much-needed vacation into nostalgia – specifically, that magical time when life was no more complicated than having a crush on the dance instructor. Cha Cha Real Smooth is a movie for those who love line-dancing but can’t quite get the steps right, went to one or fourteen bar mitzvahs, or hasn’t called their mom in two weeks.