Remember Garden State? These days a mention of Zach Braff’s 2004 movie elicits derisive laughter, to the point where the film sabotaged his would-be artistic legacy. We like to snicker at that movie now, but at the time of release, it got a positive response from critics and audiences —the movie currently has an 86% critic rating and 88% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I wonder if time will treat Cooper Raiff as it has Braff. Braff was 28 when he wrote, directed and starred in Garden State. Raiff, the writer, director and star of Cha Cha Real Smooth, hitting Apple TV+ this weekend, is 25. As filmmakers, they share similar interests (quarter-life crises, white male coming-of-age, the New Jersey suburbs), and it’s undeniable that some of Raiff’s visual choices echo ones in Braff’s work—not always for the better.
Cha Cha Real Smooth bears distinct similarities to Braff’s movie, but it’s better by leaps and bounds. Garden State was overserious, over-quirky and asked viewers to sympathize with an obnoxious, selfish protagonist. Cha Cha Real Smooth is unpretentious and generous of heart and spirit. Raiff makes some missteps along the way, but the end result feels emotionally honest, not manipulative.
Raiff plays Andrew, an aimless college grad who’s moved back in with his mom (Leslie Mann), stepdad (Brad Garrett) and kid brother David (Evan Assante). While accompanying David to a series of classmates’ bar and bat mitzvahs, Andrew stumbles into a career as a party starter, the guy who gets all the awkward 13-year-olds and their parents out on the dance floor.
Through his gigs, Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), the young single mom of autistic teenager Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Andrew has an instant connection with both of them, but the age difference, and Domino’s pending marriage to the age-appropriate Joseph (Raúl Castillo), create complications.
Unlike Braff’s sack-of-wet-cement Andrew Largeman, Raiff’s Andrew is sweet, energetic and clearly cares about the people around him. Andrew offers charming advice to David about how to work up the courage to kiss his new girlfriend. His interactions with Domino and Lola are, for the most part, selfless and genuine.
Johnson’s Domino is also given room to grow alongside Andrew. As the thirtysomething mother of a neurodivergent teen facing a second marriage, she’s caught between wanting to make the most of her fleeting youth and establishing the stability she and her daughter need. Johnson walks that line convincingly, and creates a character whose choices we question, while still wanting her to thrive.
Cha Cha Real Smooth does occasionally mistake quirk for cleverness, and a couple of specific choices threaten to tip the whole enterprise into cringe territory. One slow walk sequence involving the use of oversized airbrushed t-shirts to cover up a moment of physical trauma borrows from the Braff playbook in the worst way. The revelation that Lola collects potato mashers adds an unnecessary character button which risks making her neurodivergence into an assemblage of cute traits a la Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State.
These occasional flaws don’t feel self-indulgent, but rather like the work of a young filmmaker with good ideas who’s still working out a few kinks. The way Cha Cha Real Smooth values the relationships that make up its story speaks well of Raiff, as does the movie’s emotional resonance. Raiff’s sophomore film proves once more that he’s a filmmaker to watch, as long as his poorer impulses don’t develop into crutches.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is in theaters and on Apple TV+ Friday.