Synopsis – A young man who works as a Bar Mitzvah party host strikes up a friendship with a mother and her autistic daughter.
My Take – The “growing up is hard” narrative has been a hot template for many coming-of-age tales throughout the years. Even today, stories mostly seen through the eyes of awkward teens and their struggles of getting through high school before transitioning to college life are more than often showered with praises for their relatability and connectivity.
However, for his second feature, following his breakout 2020 indie hit, Shithouse, 25-year-old writer-director-producer-actor Cooper Raiff flips the narrative and instead looks at a directionless post-college graduate who is still struggling to find his way into adulthood. An age when the education system can no longer provide the path for growth and life choices.
Resulting is an achingly sad, funny, honest, shamelessly manipulative insight that is also astonishingly one of the year’s best films. Taking home the coveted audience award for Best US drama at the Sundance Film Festival and suffused with a bounty of warmth, director Raiff’s film is an optimistic take on the adolescent transition that demonstrates how life after youth can be far more electrifying and confusing at the same time.
Apart from some misplaced hero worship, the film is thoroughly original, warm and witty, and unfolds without a false moment or even a whiff of predictably. The direction is sensitive and assured, and Raiff’s leading man is endearingly winning. Replicating the tone and sheer glee of Apple‘s Best Picture-winning success CODA, this one firmly establishes Cooper Raiff as one of the most exciting young filmmakers around.
The story follows Andrew (Cooper Raiff), a 22-year-old who has just graduated from college with little idea of what to do with his life. Separating from his Barcelona-bound girlfriend, he moves back home to live with his loving and bipolar mother Lisa (Leslie Mann), awkward stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett), and adoring little brother David (Evan Assante).
While he quickly finds a job at fast food joint, Andrew’s charming persona quickly gets noticed, resulting in a swarm of Jewish mothers recruiting him in a paid position to be a bar mitzvah party-starter.
However, his life changes when he takes David to one classmate’s bat mitzvah and instantly strikes a bond with a 30-something-year-old Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who is a schoolmate of David. Soon, Andrew ingratiates himself into the family’s lives and despite the looming presence of Domino’s lawyer fiancé, Joseph (Raul Castillo), Andrew and Domino begin to fall for one another as soulmates.
Simply told, the film is a sweet narrative about embracing the good-for-you things in life. And plot often zigzags around and goes to different places of Andrew’s life, showing us all of his emotions from good to bad. The character of Andrew is, was, or will be so many of us with all the flaws, aspirations and emptiness.
Here, director Raiff taps into that part of us that just wants to be young again but then again we don’t. He shows the fun but also the torturous side of growing up. It almost hurts to watch this film but in such a good way. He portrays Andrew with astonishing warmth and heaps of misguided mess-ups, but always with this calming openness. The film shows us that the only direction in life is dictated by the woman with whom he falls in love, and that ultimately he needs to take his next step in life seriously.
He sees himself as a white knight, and quickly embeds himself in Domino’s world as a savior. But life isn’t so simple, a lesson the film is begging to teach Andrew. If there’s one thing to take away from this film, it’s that it is okay to not know what you want, even when you’re in your 20s. But while Andrew is at the very beginning of his figuring it out phase, Domino is at the end of hers.
Domino’s journey is one of the most compelling aspects of the film. Andrew is drawn to Domino’s sweet soft voice, fiery spirit, and independent attitude; and like a moth to a flame, Domino can’t resist Andrew’s genuine charm and authenticity.
The bond they create is undeniable, it’s a connection that is rare for both of them. But for all of her erratic decisions throughout the story, she’s actually the most secure in what she wants that is commitment. And even though she has electric chemistry with Andrew, she knows that they’re not right for each other.
The film doesn’t waste massive amounts of time on will-they, won’t-they tension outside what’s necessary for certain scenes. It’s more about how Andrew and Domino will converse their way out of the dependency they’ve built. Another thing that the film really nails is the brotherly relationship that Andrew has with David. Andrew’s innate caregiver energy also extends to Domino’s autistic daughter Lola.
Sure, there are some hiccups along the way, such as the overwhelming sense of familiarity the film has, as well as some wildly unrealistic moments, but all in all their have few films in recent years that feel as authentic, wholesome, uplifting, comedic, and emotional as this one, that takes viewers for an intriguing ride filled with tons of substance and memorable moments.
Without a doubt, Cooper Raiff is the star of the show and is nearly as effortless an actor as he is a director, plays Andrew like an overwhelmingly nice guy. Andrew smiles through most of his heartbreaking and weary interactions as Raiff redefines what it means to deliver a feel-good performance. Dakota Johnson too brings in yet another outstanding performance. Though an affair appears to be budding with Andrew, Dakota ensures that Domino remains the adult in the relationship.
In supporting roles, Leslie Mann, Vanessa Burghardt, Brad Garrett, Raul Castillo, Evan Assante, Odeya Rush, Erik Feig, Jessica Switch and Ro Donnelly are absolutely stellar. Each actor brings their own sense of charisma and likability to their respective roles. On the whole, ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ is a delightful coming-of-age comedy that is funny, warm and heartfelt from start to finish.
Directed – Cooper Raiff
Rated – R
Run Time – 107 minutes