‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’: A Tango of Clumsy Transitions

With his two films so far, director-writer-actor Cooper Raiff proves that his work are the party starters of life’s most awkward and formative phases. He started strong in 2020 with his debut Shithouse, where he tries to (awkwardly) groove into the beat of a collegiate neophyte. This year, he released his crowd-charmer sophomore Cha Cha Real Smooth, where he attempts to (blindly) cha-cha his way into the crazy, post-collegiate dance floor called adulthood.

Cha Cha Real Smooth follows Andrew (Cooper Raiff) who is officially on an adventure to find his purpose upon returning home after college. His current plans include working part-time at a fast-food place and following his girlfriend in Barcelona. A job as a bar mitzvah host lands him in an unconventional friendship with the charming Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic teenage daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).

Like most coming-of-age films, Cha Cha Real Smooth is easily relatable because of its honest exploration of a certain life stage—in the protagonist’s case, his early 20s. But what makes Raiff’s idea refreshing is that, while it speaks a familiar message, it is delivered with a distinct Gen Z twang. As a millennial who is about to bid goodbye to her 20s, I was inspired to ask myself a reflective question, “Did I do my 20s right?” On second thought, is there even a “right” way to do your 20s?

Most people say that your 20s is the most defining decade of your life. And it’s true that this has been the focal concept of any 20s-centric flick regardless of generation. Mid-watching Cha Cha Real Smooth, I was quickly reminded of its Gen X and millennial variants Reality Bites (1994),  Frances Ha (2013), and The Worst Person In The World (2021). They also have protagonists who are idealistic, spontaneous, and aimless just like Andrew. And all of these characters have their own unique dance moves interpreting their own mid-quarter-life existential crises. Looking back at how I tried to find my footing in my own 20s, I realized I did the same thing as them—freestyling. It seems that to dance your 20’s “right”, you have to keep on improvising.  You have to let your feet make up the moves as you go, regardless of how stupid or crazy it will make you look.

But just when I thought that Cha Cha Real Smooth is solely a self-indulgent performance of Andrew as a 20s noob, it changes the routine when it invites the hand of Domino as a 30s noob, turning the solo dance into a gawky tango of two equally befuddled people. As Andrew navigates the complexities of his own early adulthood hell, he finds himself attracted to a transitioning mid-adult Domino. Funnily, their encounter perfectly mirrors the film’s opening scene wherein a puberty-infused Andrew falls in love for the first time with someone who was too old for him. 

Unlike his teenage self, Andrew is able to get past his initial attraction to Domino. In fact, he strikes an unlikely bond with her, which strengthens his claim that she is his soulmate. At first glance, they’re obviously a dangerous combo: a hopeless romantic and an engaged single mom. But I believe what kept their lowkey-situationship going for a while is that they are both at the most perplexing phases of their lives, and it’s simply comforting to have someone to be with at that point.

Predictably, what starts out as a sloppy yet intimate tango ends up being a dance lesson for both Andrew and Domino. Their swift yet sweet performance represents relationships that are ultimately toxic yet necessary for growth. Without each other, they wouldn’t progress with their separate choreographies. In a sense, Andrew and Domino were each other’s “reality checks.” As Andrew starts the phase that Domino is about to leave, he realizes how much life there is ahead of him. And as Domino departs Andrew’s phase, she finally decides that she’s ready to accept a more settled way of life.

There is truly a lot to unpack in Cha Cha Real Smooth, but the most impressive thing is its ability to capture the transition from one life stage to another, regardless of age. It validates the beautiful human experience of being in your own metamorphosis. It also recognizes the moment of being in a long, uncertain rhythm between point A and point B, and how being in that position makes you invent random moves until you find something that fits the music.

Groovy and warm, Cha Cha Real Smooth is easily one of the most comforting films of the year because of its relatable theme, calculated charm, and emotional dexterity. Its mix of upbeat, slow, and graceful tones assures that even the most confused feet have something to dance to.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is streaming on Apple TV+

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