The brief for Cha Cha Real Smooth, the latest movie to debut on Apple TV Plus, at least in the mind of its writer, director and lead actor, Cooper Raiff, was clearly to create a charming coming-of-age film in which a charming lad, just out of college, charms his way into the hearts of all around him, and those watching at home.
But that’s the elusive thing about charm; you can’t manufacture it, try as you might.
And try Raiff's Andrew does. “Gosh, you’re really sweet!” one character tells him in the film. Then, as he’s sucking on an ice-pop: “You look like the most sweetest person ever!”. No one talks like this, at least not to someone over the age of six. But the film rams home this characterisation, for those that haven’t quite had it knocked over their head enough: He really is sweet! Everybody says so! So it must be true!
The film’s setting is that weird, post-college limbo and Andrew is floundering. While some people seem to be getting on with their lives, in particular his ex-hook up, Maya, who’s living it up in Barcelona without him) Andrew’s left sharing a bedroom with his kid brother at home, grilling meat on sticks for a day job and wondering when it’s all going to happen for him.
He finally gets the attention he’s so obviously craving on the bar/bat Mitzvah circuit that his little brother David (Evan Assante) finds himself invited to at most weekends. As if having a college-age brother crash these parties wasn’t enough of an embarrassment; Andrew then decides to become a professional “party starter”; a hype-man at these events, which he anoints himself as the “Jig Conductor” and makes a suitably weird home video advertising his services to local families.
“It’s so cute!” his mum, a sadly underused Leslie Mann, lies. “It’s so good!” Despite reading the audience’s mind (“If anybody sees this I’m going to get put on a watch list”, he correctly asserts) remarkably, he’s employed as the resident woohoo!-er for all the neighbourhood teen parties.
Get the party started...
This is where Andrew meets the new objects of his affection and obsession: Domino (another broken bird character for Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, Lola (a strong portrayal from newcomer Vanessa Burghardt).
Andrew’s opening cringeful gambit is worse than a drunk uncle at a wedding - “Tonight is the night you dance your booties off!” - and would have anybody else tapping straight away for an Uber, but Domino and Lola seem quite taken with this manic pixie dream boy.
When Andrew helps Domino out with a medical emergency (that’s never mentioned again in the film after that night) it begins his path of what feels like a white saviour within the movie; sweeping in to help the less-fortunate in their time of need. That Andrew, 22, keeps repeating his instant connection with Lola, a 13-year old girl with autism, isn’t seen as odd, but instead is positioned as heart-warming.
Would he be falling over himself to make friends with another 13-year-old girl if she wasn’t neuro-diverse, and would her mum be quite so happy to let him so intimately into their lives?
“What are you doing here?" Lola bluntly asks Andrew one night. The kid's got a point. Their relationship at its core seems unrealistic, and unbalanced. Yes, Andrew has designs on her mum, pining away with his puppy dog eyes despite learning she’s engaged to lawyer Joseph (Raúl Castillo) as she yearns for stability and commitment.
His infatuation is obviously doomed - as a flashback childhood scene at the beginning of the film glaringly pre-empts us - so instead we’re force-fed his seemingly altruistic deeds, as all the other characters exist solely for Andrew to help for his own personal growth.
Take his mom (Mann) - who doesn’t even have a name other than ‘Andrew’s Mom’ in the credits - we’re told she is bi-polar after an incident at the film’s opening, then it’s barely mentioned again, apart from when Andrew is hitting on Domino, relegating it to a mere plot device.
It’s like a twisted Bechdel Test: do any characters exist outside of their relation to Andrew’s good deeds?
The making of a charmless man...
American coming-of-age films - particularly of white men in their twenties - hit their peak with Zach Braff in 2004’s Garden State, which Cha Cha Real Smooth has definite echoes of.
These auteur-led - and on revisiting; somewhat self-indulgent - movies tend to triumph at indie film festivals, which could be one of the reasons that Raiff - who also wrote and directed 2020’s S***house - was so celebrated at this year’s Sundance Festival, as Cha Cha Real Smooth took home the Audience Award.
But who is the audience for this? Other young, stifled creatives at the beginning of their careers? The young adult crowd who've fallen in love with Euphoria? Moms looking for a light-hearted rom-com? As it misses the mark on all counts.
Perhaps at the festivals the movie reached a more earnest crowd with its storyline and Raiff managed to pull off his loveable-boi schtick, but I can’t help feeling that it’ll fail to connect with audiences.
Much like Mr C The Slide Man's track, which seemed inescapable for months when it was released in 2000, and gives the film its name, viewers might find Cha Cha Real Smooth more of an annoyance than the iconic cultural moment the creator is aiming for.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is out now on Apple TV Plus
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Laura Martin is an entertainment journalist who covers TV, film, and music. She's written for numerous big publications, including TechRadar, Esquire, BBC Culture, The Guardian, and The i newspaper. Her favourite stories usually involve prestige TV drama, reality TV, or true-life documentaries. Basically, the more obscure, the better!