Possibly the most fascinating (and watchable) new micro-genre of movies birthed by the pandemic is the one centred around the disillusionment of millennial women. You probably already know some of its best examples — The Worst Person in the World, Zero F**ks Given, Anaïs in Love — and also some of the worst, which invariably includes anything that Sally Rooney decides to hem and haw about.
Think of it as the natural progression of a similar wave of 2000s cinema in which (mostly white) man-children would wait around for bright young women to wander into their lives and give them the push that they so desperately need. But without any of the ingrained condescension of Imtiaz Ali and Ayan Mukerji’s films. One of the more memorable titles to have surfaced from that wave was Garden State, which is worth remembering not because it did anything radical with the format (like tell a woman’s story from the woman’s perspective), but because it featured a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, before the term had even been coined.
Like Garden State, this week’s Cha Cha Real Smooth is also set in New Jersey. And it embodies the much-needed cultural shift that has happened in the last couple of decades. Guess what, the female characters now have nicely fleshed-out lives of their own, and don’t exist only to serve the male characters’ stories.
Achingly sad, laugh-out-loud funny, and a definite shoo-in at next year’s Oscars, Cha Cha Real Smooth establishes wunderkind director Cooper Raiff as one of the most exciting young filmmakers around; he’s contemporary Hollywood’s answer to Kantemir Balagov and Xavier Dolan. Raiff is all of 25, but already has two truly terrific festival hits under his belt. His debut feature, S#!%house, was a low-key college romance modelled after the early movies of Richard Linklater, who was also in his 20s when he made Slacker. Cha Cha Real Smooth is Raiff’s Dazed and Confused—not in terms of structure or style, but certainly as far as themes and creative evolution are concerned.
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This is an uncommonly assured movie, for any filmmaker, but especially for someone this young. Most people of Raiff’s age are probably stuck in jobs like the one that his character Andrew tolerates in the film. Andrew works the counter at a fast food restaurant called Meat Sticks, where his days are dominated by long stretches of boredom punctuated by the occasional aggrieved customer. He senses an exit route when a gaggle of middle-aged Jewish women accost him at a bar/bat mitzvah having noticed his people skills. They present him with an offer: Andrew can work as a party starter at the several other bar/bat mitzvahs planned for the summer, while he figures out what to actually do with his life.
Recently graduated from college and harbouring delusions about saving up enough to travel to Europe for a girlfriend who is definitely never coming back, Andrew has moved back in with his mother (played by a vulnerable Leslie Mann), her husband Gary (a scene-stealing Brad Garrett), and his brother David (Evan Assante). He’s gregarious, outgoing, and often toes the line between endearing and annoying.
But there’s a sense that Andrew has been so caught in the moment that he hasn’t quite thought about the next one, or the one after that. Raiff, who is nearly as effortless an actor as he is a director, plays Andrew like an overwhelmingly nice guy. Almost too nice, some would say. At one point, he kicks a patch of grass out of frustration, has a moment of self-realisation, and then pats the bruised patch back into place. But Andrew’s niceness isn’t restricted to foliage, and nor is he as unidimensional as I’ve probably made him sound. He gets an opportunity to present the best version of himself after a chance encounter with Domino, a young mother to an autistic teen, at one of his bar/bat mitzvah gigs.
Played by Dakota Johnson in yet another outstanding performance following her breathtaking turn in last year’s The Lost Daughter, Domino is the post-pandemic world’s counterpoint to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Her eyes have lost the twinkle of youth; she has a smile as sad as a fading sunset, and an air of melancholy follows her around like a ghost on its last day among the living. Domino is the perfect foil to Andrew, with his toothy grin, scraggly manner, and glass-half-full attitude.
But crucially, she doesn’t exist in service of him. In fact, even though Andrew is ostensibly the protagonist, Raiff cleverly subverts gender roles and gives Domino the more compelling character arc. And what a character she is; alluring yet aloof, mysterious yet so eloquent; the kind of person who’d save you from a house fire, and then never speak to you again. But Raiff/Andrew never treats her like a red flag. Instead, he empties every last ounce of empathy that he can into understanding her. There’s certainly a lot to unpack.
Cha Cha Real Smooth offers a delicate portrayal of mental health, which isn’t just limited to Domino’s daughter Lola, and how sweetly the movie navigates her scenes, but also Andrew’s mother, who is bipolar, and Domino herself. She tells Andrew in the movie’s best scene—the most romantic stretch of cinema you’re likely to see this year—that she was depressed in her youth. “What does it feel like?” the slightly tactless Andrew asks. Her answer will shake you to your core.
As will this movie, which is easily one of the best of the year. It’s probably too early to make a declaration this bold, but Cha Cha Real Smooth has a realistic shot at becoming Apple’s second major contender at the Academy Awards after fellow Sundance hit CODA.
Cha Cha Real Smooth
Director – Cooper Raiff
Cast – Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Odeya Rush, Vanessa Burghardt, Evan Assante, Raúl Castillo
Rating – 5/5