He’s a cha cha real smooth talker. He’s 22, tall and handsome with a beard, but not a scruffy hipster beard — more like a post-millennial, post-ironic traditional beard, which sets off features that are finely chiseled in a Middle American corporate way. (When he grins, he looks like Donny Osmond.) He’s just out of college but has no idea what he wants to do. He’s a Zoomer spinning his wheels, part of a tradition of aimless rebel slackers that stretches back to “The Graduate.” He’s sincere but a bit smarmy, a “nice guy” who knows how to use his sincerity. (He says stuff like, “I feel there are things that you just, like, don’t say to me. And I can’t tell whether you’re, like, holding back a desire to be close, or a desire to be distant.”) He is, of course, good with the ladies, maybe a little too good, which is why he attracts the amorous attentions of a mother he meets at a bat mitzvah, played by Dakota Johnson. And he’s got problems, but they’re sort of white people problems. You could call them old-school indie-film problems.
Andrew, the hero of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (he’s played by Cooper Raiff, who wrote and directed the movie), is a charmingly annoying, selfish at heart but meticulously other-directed, oh so familiar Sundance Film Festival character. The film opens with a prelude that flashes back to when Andrew was a boy of 12, with a crush on a grown woman he’s audacious enough to declare his love to. This, it seems, will be his “pattern,” though all I could think was, “It’s ‘Tadpole’ redux.” Fortunately, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a much better movie than “Tadpole.” Raiff, who arrived on the scene with the award-winning 2020 coming-of-age comedy “Shithouse” (which he also wrote, directed, and starred in), has the instincts of a born filmmaker: how to shape a scene, how to bring out his actors, how to create a hero who’s just interesting enough to hook us and just off enough to make us want to correct him.
Andrew is confused about everything — work, love, you name it. Despite that, he’s got the kind of cocksure personality that says Irresistible Indie Film Hero. And the push-pull dance he does with the audience (“Look, I’m charming! Look, I’ve also got issues!”) is more or less the same dance that the film is doing. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” works overtime to be an honest movie, and it also works overtime to ingratiate itself. In a sense, it accomplishes both aims, but I’m not sure that they entirely go together.
The world of independent film is in transition. The once sturdy old dream — you make a movie, it gets into Sundance, it turns people on, it attracts a distributor, it’s released into theaters and connects with audiences — can still happen, but as a model for how the indie-film world looks after the streaming revolution, it’s a lot less solid than it once was. The reason I bring this up is that “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” which is likely to emerge as one of the rare “crowd-pleasers” of Sundance 2022, is the quintessence of a certain kind of Sundance film that’s rooted in an era that’s going out of style. There’s every chance this movie will follow the pattern of the dream. Except, perhaps, for one part: More than ever, I wonder who the audience is.
I enjoyed most of “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” even as I was aware that much of what happens in it feels like a series of tropes descended from “Rushmore” and “Say Anything” and “Igby Goes Down” and a hundred Sundance films like “The Tao of Steve” that are centered on lovably exasperating man-child flakes. There’s the fact that Andrew has a job from hell manning the counter of a fast-food mall restaurant called Meat Sticks. There’s the tranquil suburban setting and emo soundtrack. There’s the way Andrew, tagging along with his moppet-haired kid brother (Evan Assante) to a bat mitzvah, winds up bringing the stodgy party to life, which is why the local Jewish mothers all agree to start hiring him as a “party starter.” (He does well at it, until he gets drunk and messes up.) There’s the mildly autistic girl he meets at that bat mitzvah, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), and before you know it he’s become her friend, protector, and babysitter. There’s Lola’s mom, Domino, played by Johnson in a performance lodged somewhere between trauma and come-on, who’s drawn to Andrew not because she has a thing for seducing younger men, but because she’s lonely, he’s a saint to her daughter, and their personalities click.
In the old indie-film days, Andrew and Domino, as inappropriate as their hooking up would be, would have hooked up. But you can feel the tremor of contemporary caution at work in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” a movie about an outré affair that never quite becomes an affair, the same way that you can feel it in “Licorice Pizza.” These movies want to tweak our proprieties and behave at the same time. And it means that “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is less a comedy about an erotic-emotional rite of passage than it is a “character study” about a kid too smart for his own good who’s got to learn to grow up.
It all adds up, and is even kind of touching (especially when Andrew informs his brother that it’s time for them to stop sharing a room). But if you wonder why I keep carping about a movie that’s not bad and was made with genuine talent, it’s that it left me with honestly divided feelings. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is fine as far as it goes, and some of the acting is better than that. I especially liked Dakota Johnson, who is showing new depths from behind her sun-dazed smile, and Raúl Castillo as her sternly territorial fiancé. But the movie, for all its qualities, never explodes into passion or revelation the way that, say, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” did. Cooper Raiff is a skilled actor, but Andrew, as a hero, walks around overly pleased with himself, and this is one case where it’s hard to unlink the character’s self-regard from the filmmaker’s. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” could turn into a Sundance hit, but maybe no movie should seem this designed to be one.