So He Thinks He Can Dance

‘Cha Cha Real Smooth,’ from director Cooper Raiff, is the most Gen-Z movie made yet

Cha Cha Real Smooth is only Cooper Raiff’s second feature, but he has already staked out a territory and sensibility all his own. His first film as writer-director, Shithouse, was that rare indie to win a prize at Sundance. A knowing look at the set-backs of college life, it revealed how well Raiff knows his characters and how well he knows the issues of young people these days, their concerns about identity and place. Once again, Raiff is back in Gen-Z land, where no one knows what they want and everyone knows how to dance. This time around his character is a college graduate, not a college student, and he’s trying to find his footing after four years of partying at Tulane.

CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Cooper Raiff
Written by:  Cooper Raiff
Starring: Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burgardt, Brad Garrett, Leslie Mann
Running time: 107 mins

Andrew has just moved back home without a plan. He hopes he can earn enough money to follow his girlfriend to Barcelona, but working at a hot dog stand makes that a long shot. An unlikely side hustle emerges when, chaperoning his little brother at a bat mitzvah, he winds up getting everyone out of their chairs and onto the dance floor for some good old fashioned disco. It goes so well every mom in town starts hitting him up to chaperone their kid’s bat mitzvah, birthday party or awards ceremony.

One of the moms who takes notice is Domino (Dakota Johnson) because of his ability to connect with her daughter (Vanessa Burgardt), who is all alone in a corner playing with a Rubik’s Cube. The two get to dancing, but it soon becomes apparent that they have a mutual interest in each other beyond Lola’s well-being and despite the age difference between them and her no-nonsense fiance (Raul Castillo), who looks like he could take Mike Tyson in a fight. This is more than just a doomed romance, though, with all sorts of comedic bits thrown in about Andrew’s taste in music. It’s a doomed romance set to WAP.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is incredibly youthful, and Raiff approaches the material with the kind of commitment it deserves. Executing this halfway just wouldn’t have done it justice. Cristina Dunlap’s cinematography is rich and immersive, much more than just a primer for the actors to throw their colors on. And Raiff is a fascinating leading man, his Andrew messy, intelligent, the kind of 20-something who could have only graduated in 2022.

But Cha Cha Real Smooth also leans too heavily into its own shtick. The sap levels are off the charts, and there’s no amount of rap music and slangy lingo that can make this thing cool, especially with a love interest as bland as Domino. She’s a dated caricature, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, one that would have been played by Julia Roberts if Julia Roberts were addicted to downers. As a viewer, you crave for a buoyant force for Domino, which the movie doesn’t find in her husband or her daughter, a shy, puppy-eyed autistic girl who seems less like a person than an object for Domino to dote on. While Johnson adds nuance to the role, she can’t overcome such a lackluster part.

Still, the film does eventually find its emotional ballast, as Raiff cuts through the twee aphorisms to find bona-fide truisms. He’s one of the few directors who knows how these people act, cope, feel and communicate, and he once again proves to be the voice of their dancing generation.

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Asher Luberto

Asher Luberto is a film critic for L.A. Weekly, The Playlist, The Progressive and The Village Voice.

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