SXSW 2022: Cha Cha Real Smooth – Cooper Raiff Returns with Another Wholesome Hit

Slide to the left. Slide to the right. I slid to the right. Tried maneuvering around the crowd. My crush was right there. And it was that song. That kind of school party. We were too young for it to be a school dance. It was too early for anything to happen. We were on a cruise in the Sound of Seattle. The school must have had a good budget that year. And there she was. She knew what to do about the song. I hadn’t heard it before. It’s helpful when a song has spoken instructions, when you’re a teenage boy and all your neurons and testosterone and boy hormones are kicking off at once. How can you get closer to her? Won’t that be weird? No, it’s a dance. I kept sliding too far to the right. Until I was next to her. And the song ended.

“You’re here too, I’m so glad.”

“I am too…”

And then her friends giggled and she walked away. Look, it’s early practice. You get better at sliding to the right over time. With any luck. There wasn’t any chance of a real dance happening there. Did they really go with “Baby Got Back” after that song? They did. It was Seattle. That was a city anthem. What was I possibly thinking about when that next song came on? We were thirteen. And that is the moment, and every boy has one, where you know it’s time to try. Painfully, at first, but now you’re aware. You’re weird and awkward and will probably have a crush on her for a couple more years until you’ve worked something out and tried talking to someone who could be interested in you.

Then maybe it will. But for that night, you will stand by the water fountain and maybe she will come by and that’s the only time you’ll ever talk except when you get AIM and make it painfully, noxiously obvious how you felt at that moment. And it’s cute at first but then it’s weird and she still talks to you every day. Everyone wants to be wanted. But you want to be bolstered to the wall by the water fountain. Legs full of iron. They would never move again. No more sliding left or right.

You got what you came for and did the impossible thing that sounded so hard, talked to her, deflated all the tension that made it so hard simply to exist, and now you could presumably go back to school without it floating in your head. But you’ll always think about the false gravity of that moment. Cha Cha Real Smooth.

That’s how it goes for young Andrew (Javien Mercado). He attends a bar mitzvah and this alluring older girl is leading the party. She just runs the show and it runs his brain. He makes a false advance. Mission accomplished. He tried and saw she rightly rejected his advance, too old, not the right time. Something about that moment stayed with him and when he came back from college, a now slightly older Andrew (Cooper Raiff, actor and director) is fed up working at a corndog shop at the mall. But he was a bit of a corndog himself, so while looking after his younger brother at another bar mitzvah, he channels the woman who once enticed him. Now, he’s going to lead the party. He’s going to get hired by the over-attentive moms at the party who think he’s good at it but resent him flirting with one of the other moms, and they’ll enlist him to always do this sort of thing.

He does this for a while and finds some purpose in doing it. Cooper Raiff is a sweetheart of a director and makes a sweet story out of his character helping the mom he’s kinda crushing on (Dakota Johnson, who wouldn’t feel that way) and instilling confidence in her autistic daughter (Vanessa Burghardt).

But the mom’s fiancé is just out of town and he’s just filling space for her and maybe the other moms are right about her anyway. Whether or not anything like this rings true to me, or my own dating experiences, should be locked behind a safe. Slide to the left.

Andrew is still just a fresh faced kid out of college and has immature ideas about what a party like these kids parties should be to him. He drinks too much at them and causes a string of awkward situations. He tries going back to a friend his age and hooking up and it’s just empty sex. And there isn’t going to be fulfilling sex for a while because he’s a kid and doesn’t know anything except that he wants it.

Raiff is good at exploring these scenarios. He writes and directs with attentive detail for what a coming-of-age story can be and how these situations really feel to someone in these awkward transitional periods of life. His film last year called Shithouse (he’s not gotten better at naming movies) showed he was a voice worth following with close attention and Cha Cha Real Smooth provides further evidence that is still true. It is a sweet and lightweight drama that doesn’t exactly go anywhere profound but is living such a revealing and normative reality that it doesn’t really need to for it to resonate with an audience.


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