Cooper Raiff’s Sundance premiere Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022) is one of those films that you would watch on a lazy weekend with a bowl of instant noodles in your hand. The film tells the story of a college graduate, Andrew, who moves back into his parents’ home, sleeps in his brother’s room, and works at a fast-food chain while searching for a job.
As he struggles to find employment and pines after his girlfriend who moved to study in Barcelona, his encounter with a woman named Domino, played by Dakota Johnson, and her autistic daughter Lola, played by Vanessa Burghardt, makes him reevaluate his purpose in life and his views on love and commitment.
Tale as old as time through a new lens
At first glance, it is a tale as old as time — the film centring around a white, privileged man’s search for identity with his parents acting as a safety net to fall back on and a woman coming in to help him along the way.
Yet, Cha Cha Real Smooth manages to repackage this story as a slice of life dramedy that turns this stereotype on its head and provides a fresh perspective on the all-encompassing identity crisis that plagues young people as they find themselves adrift in the soul-crushing capitalist job market.
From the very beginning, the audience is taken in by the main character, Andrew’s sweet charm and his eagerness to please everyone around him. His characterisation misses the usual angst that we associate with characters set in the premise of struggling years of youth. It pulls in the audience like a warm embrace. Through his character, filmmaker Raiff employs a certain kind of radical empathy, which makes us slowly invested in each character as we are introduced to them through Andrew’s gaze.
Cooper Raiff comments on this in one of his interviews, “My whole goal with making movies is to make the audience love them and understand them as much as I do, so I think that’s the empathy of it.”
She writes her own story: female love interest is not a plot device
As Andrew starts working as a party-starter at bar mitzvahs around the town and works as Lola’s sitter, he gets tangled into a loving relationship with both mother and daughter. Soon, Domino’s fiance, Joseph, played by Raul Castillo, makes an appearance, whom Andrew immediately perceives as an inattentive and uncaring partner for Domino.
Unlike most stories of this genre, the movie carefully avoids the stereotype of featuring Domino as a one-dimensional plot device whose only role is to help Andrew realise the meaning of love and commitment. Domino actively uses her agency to express comfort in Andrew’s company and encourages a physical and romantic affair with him. In an interview, Raiff explains that his initial idea for this film revolved around this idea of a woman named Domino and her disabled daughter, Lola. “I was also thinking, I can’t make a movie about Domino. I can make a movie through the lens of a dumbass 22-year-old that gets at something.”
Many imperfectly perfect lives in one narrative
In the last scene of the movie, Andrew runs to Domino’s doorsteps in a flurry of grand gestures to save her from what he assumed would be an unhappy marriage, only to realise that all love has its limitations.
Domino turns him down by making it clear that there is no saving her because she does not need to be saved. Perhaps, her fiance is not someone she is madly in love with, but he offers her a home, a life of commitment, and stability which she craves more than the youthful affairs of a whirlwind romance.
The film problematises the notion of a perfect life by trying to destabilise the all-encompassing, monolithic picture of happiness that popular culture ingrains in us. Domino writes her own narrative of a happy life and urges Andrew to live out his twenties with all their messiness and uncertainties rather than taking on responsibilities that are too big for him to comprehend.
Domino’s rejection comes from a place of love that breaks Andrew’s heart but also clears away the fog in his vision of love and happiness. In many ways, she plays the role of a parental figure who helps him figure out his life but never at the cost of her own happiness or choices. The movie explores the idea of radical empathy and active acceptance in its treatment of the characters.
To love with boundaries
Andrew’s character is a sketch of the “nice guy” trope. However, what attracts the audience to Andrew’s character becomes the biggest obstacle in his path — his selfless way of loving and pleasing other people. He loves without boundaries, without limitations, only to meet multiple dead ends.
Raiff says in his interview, “I think a lot of people think that Andrew is so sweet, such a great, nice guy, and for me, he just has no boundaries whatsoever.” He also goes on to reiterate the blindsided nature of Andrew’s actions, “I think with a lot of people like that, because I can relate, people who dive so far into other people’s worlds and are trying not to deal with themselves in any way, those people can also hyper-focus on one or two people and then totally neglect the other people in their lives.”
The movie offers a subtle critique of this romanticised notion of selfless love and asserts the need for boundaries. Many times such selfless gestures stem from one’s need for external validation to feel their worth. Through Andrew’s journey, the film explores how to enjoy one’s own company even when it feels unbearable to be alone.
Raiff remarks that, “It’s important to have boundaries as a person, and it’s
romantic to think that you can drop everything at any point to be there for someone and help them through something, but really the biggest thing is boundaries.”
Strength in active acceptance and kindness
In a scene, Andrew breaks down in tears as he tells his mother, played by Leslie Mann, that despite her bouts of depressive episodes, she still managed to give her son a beautiful, happy, and secure childhood. It encapsulates the essence of the film by prioritising the need for actively accepting what has been in all its beautiful and ugly reality while acknowledging all the little, beautiful things in our lives which must not get lost as we inevitably move on with our lives.
Cha Cha Real Smooth, despite having a mainstream subject matter, pulls at the heartstrings of its audience with its grounded storyline — never attempting anything larger-than-life. It manages to offer something new because it does not compromise the realness of the characters. The story of a straight, white boy living in a mostly white, privileged neighbourhood of New Jersey still manages to offer something fresh and beautiful because Cooper Raiff tells a story that he knows.
Raiff portrays a self-immersed character, as most young people are, but not oblivious. He often gets caught up in his own needs and interests but always retains enough self-awareness to pull himself back onto the surface and acknowledge the presence of everyone else around him.
Featured image source: The Guardian