There’s always a conversation every b’nai mitzvah kid has at some point. The b’nai mitzvah is a Jewish rite of passage; when a Jewish kid turns 13, they officially become Jewish adults for all intents and purposes. But the conversation goes: are you really an adult just because you suddenly turn a certain age and everyone throws you a party? Cha Cha Real Smooth is an Apple TV+ Original written and directed by Cooper Raiff, co-starring him and Dakota Johnson, who also co-produced. Andrew (Raiff) is 22 and just graduated college. But like his bar mitzvah-aged brother must too ponder, is Andrew really suddenly an adult just because he has a diploma and a job?
This movie is so many things at once. Most importantly, it’s a coming-of-age story. But uniquely, it’s not about a kid coming out of teenagedom or a teen coming of adulthood. It’s an adult coming of adulthood. And it’s beautiful. Andrew is living with his mom, his step-dad, and his brother in Livingston, New Jersey, after a tenure at Tulane. He’s muddling through old high school relationships and has no clue what to do with his life as he works a miserable job at a local mall. He’s also heartbroken after his college girlfriend left for Barcelona on a Fullbright and left him behind with barely a thought.
He is, at first, a quintessential 22-year-old. Though Raiff looks nothing like that age, he completely acts and speaks like it in a really funny and well-scripted way. It’s very Zillenial in that he’s old enough to have the attitude about work as essential that mires Millenials but is young enough to at least being self-aware about it like a Zoomer. He also carries about a willingness to opine after an older woman in a way that feels kind of 2000sish while having the modern sensibility to value enthusiastic consent above all.
He’s curt in a way that only a recent college grad used to partying every day would be, and he says incredibly awkward things all of the time. But he’s also, quite possibly, one of the nicest and most genuine people in the world. Maybe a little too much; he gives of himself too hard, too fast without thinking of himself. He’s kind of corny, and his musings on true love are candy-sweet. But truly, he is one of the most endearing leading male characters I have seen of late, and you can tell that it’s straight from Raiff’s heart.
This becomes apparent about him almost immediately while accompanying his brother David (Evan Assante) to one of a string of b’nai mitzvah parties. Dancing at these parties was formative in Andrew’s life, and when nobody else had fun at this one, he instantly sprang into action as the party’s pro bono party starter. Pro bono soon turns to professional as the other parents notice, and Andrew finds a true knack and joy in getting kids to have fun. Especially Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), an autistic teen (played by an autistic actress native to that very part of New Jersey) with whose mother Domino (Dakota Johnson), Andrew becomes immediately infatuated.
It has to be made clear that as the relationship between Andrew and Domino progresses, so too does that of Andrew and Lola. Lola is never treated as anything other than a fully-fledged character unto herself that Andrew genuinely enjoys spending time with as he becomes her babysitter of choice, regardless of his intentions with her mother. I am, however, somewhat concerned that perhaps her character was boiled down too heavily to fulfill the most recognizable stereotypes of an autistic teen. But she acts so well, and jokes are only ever made at Andrew’s expense for being dense, never hers for being autistic.
Of course, that relationship between Andrew and Domino is the crux of it all. It’s deep, complex, and incredibly well-acted by both parties in ways that constantly moved me, and for different reasons each time. I cannot exact my praises upon how this story was written with such care without spoiling some of the moments that made it so emotional. But truly, to watch a young twenty-something-year-old get the opportunity to come of age on screen was impactful.
In large part, because I am, in many ways, that twenty-something-year-old who had grand plans for a future with somebody upon graduating college only to have them foiled, winding up back in my parents’ home in New Jersey with my youngest brother, with no idea for the future besides “work at some good non-profit” as Andrew puts it. My trajectory from there and my relationships around me certainly were different from Andrew’s, but the general idea was eerily the same. And all the more so the calling that we both found.
Where Andrew became deeply fulfilled by the joy he could bring kids and the relationships he could build with them—again, in ways that were always written with such care to be genuine and reciprocal and never transactional or weird—I, too, realized that my greatest joys since college have come when I stop trying to find the perfect path forward and the perfect people to be in relationship to and give of myself to others, especially kids. I don’t know how affecting the story, and Andrew’s character would have been had I not seen myself so deeply in him, but that Raiff so clearly put his whole self into this story, and this character left me utterly compelled and very emotional by the end.
Especially because the story isn’t just about Andrew alone. It’s about Domino too, and the self-discovery and coming of her own age that she enjoys. The fulfillment she seeks is the complete opposite of Andrew’s and is just as valid and wonderful. It’s a movie, in the end, that is striking in its simple, genuine nature. Sure, its characters are somewhat exaggerated, especially Andrew’s mother (Leslie Mann) and step-father (Brad Garrett), but exaggeration often helps make points more transparent.
The absolute only thing keeping this movie back from perfection is the clear lack of Jewish consultation it received. I’ve worked at synagogues in the towns where Cha Cha Real Smooth takes place. First of all, no b’nai mitzvah party would ever be thrown in that relatively wealthy area just outside of New York City that didn’t have a whole cadre of party starters, DJs, and dancers hired nine months in advance. It’s an area where vanity is often a massive part of these parties, and they are gigantic expensive affairs. While I am sure the movie’s low budget was prohibitive, the decor in the many b’nai mitzvah parties shown were far below the most basic expectations I would have of a party in Livingston, NJ.
Lastly, and perhaps most egregiously, Cha Cha Real Smooth occurs during the summer. A poster at one party fairly early on indicates the party was taking place in mid-August. There has never been a b’nai mitzvah party in the modern history of such affairs held in the middle of August for any reason. Let alone a string of seven of them in a row. It’s a continuity weirdness that would place the end of the film probably farther into September than would even make sense, given when school begins in New Jersey.
But quite literally, any Jewish reader of this script should likely have caught the total infeasibility of its timing. Its two lead actors are not Jewish, something remarked upon comedically at one point but in a way where you are only in on the joke if you didn’t, understandably, assume that Raiff was Jewish.
Plenty of non-Jews go to and work at b’nai mitzvah parties. The whole set of characters could be not Jewish, and it wouldn’t matter at all. It’s just somewhat frustrating that a story centered around a Jewish religious/cultural event has such glaring gaps in its basic understanding of the community it’s portraying.
Nonetheless, Cha Cha Real Smooth is an easy contender for one of my favorite movies of the year so far. It’s so genuine and emotional with two magnificent lead characters who go through painfully but gloriously relatable comings of age. It’s really a special movie. Regardless of your background or your experience, you will absolutely love Andrew’s deep kindness, his cathartic journey, and the way the movie treats all of its characters with such care.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is streaming on Apple TV+ and playing in select theaters on June 17th.
Cha Cha Real Smooth
Cha Cha Real Smooth is an easy contender for one of my favorite movies of the year so far. It’s so genuine and emotional with two magnificent lead characters who go through painfully but gloriously relatable comings of age.