Every good coming-of-age story centers a sense of loss: of innocence, of control, of self-assurance. Being 22 is confusing not just because the answers don't seem to be clear, but because the questions aren't always apparent. We all go through this, and it sucks for everyone. Except Andrew, the protagonist of Cooper Raiff's Cha Cha Real Smooth, out in theaters and streaming on AppleTV+. Andrew, played by Raiff, finds himself beguiled by Domino (Dakota Johnson), a woman some ten years his senior whose daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) attends the same school as his own little brother David (Evan Assante). Domino, Lola, and Andrew first meet at a bat mitzvah where the dance floor is a little sad and empty. Andrew takes it upon himself to pump up the party, betting Domino $300 that he can get Lola, who is autistic and a bit older than the kids in her grade, to dance with him, thus encouraging everyone else. Wielding his charm and wit, Andrew succeeds at securing Domino's attention and saving the party from the unforgiving wrath of preteen boredom. Soon enough, every Jewish mother in Livingston, NJ wants Andrew to be the party starter at her kid's bat or bar mitzvah, Andrew is in love with Domino (even though she's engaged), and Lola is attached to him.
The film follows Andrew, freshly out of college, as he moves back in with his mother and stepdad. He doesn't quite know what to do with himself, so he gets a job at a fast-food chain hoping to make enough money to follow his college girlfriend to Barcelona, though she has made it clear she doesn't want him there. It's a good, auspicious premise that asks rich questions: how do we go about finding out who we are? How do you come to know what you want, and how do you become the kind of person who can get it? The problem is that Andrew seems to have the answers down pat. What he wants: to be good. How he's going to get it: being himself. Who he is: a good guy who deserves his goodness reflected back to him, through the people he loves and the ones he doesn't. The good people look up to him; the bad people make him look better.
Badness, in Andrew's orbit, is embodied in varying degrees by Domino ("I'm a bad person," she announces), his stepdad Greg (for reasons that remain mysterious to the audience), and the bullies who give Lola a hard time. "Maybe you guys should beat [the bullies] up," Andrew suggests to David and his friend one day in the car, after asking them to keep an eye out for Lola at school. When, at another bar mitzvah, David acts on the advice — as he is wont to do because he looks up to his brother — Andrew tries to intervene. In the midst of the confusion, he finds himself fighting off protective parents, and the fighting between the kids and the adults becomes indistinguishable. Andrew's mother Lisa (an always excellent Leslie Mann) gets punched in the eye. The whole affair, which is over in less than five minutes, is one of several missed opportunities Raiff writes into the script: by the end of it, everyone is proud of having stood up for what's right.
Badness is alluded to but never examined; it presents itself, always, at a remove from Andrew, independently of how emotionally invested he might be. He stands up for Lola by way of encouraging his little brother to fight; when Domino kisses him, he is quick to deny her, even though he is, supposedly, head over heels in love with her. Standing to gain from the transgressions of others, Andrew is like a kid at the back of a classroom who tells the teacher they're sorry for laughing; it wasn't their fault, their friend was the one making the joke. Raiff trades the potentially broad appeal of an approach that would recognize this for a safer, infinitely weaker one: by not acknowledging it, he can go on believing it's his uniqueness, his unimpeachable goodness, that makes complication disappear almost as soon as it emerges.
There is a narrowness to that vision that turns every character into an amalgam of vague qualities, ridding them of every particularity that could make them feel real. Because no one is anything but a way for Andrew to see and measure himself, the impact of the actions and events that befall them, as dramatic or painful as they are, is null. Instead, pain can be easily resolved by Andrew: when Domino complains her elbows hurt, he offers the palms of his hands as support for them. The same tactic can be used to wipe away the pain she might have felt through suffering a miscarriage, or from years of depression, or even from realizing her whole life has gone in the opposite direction for which she had planned. Blood running down her legs in a bathroom stall of some random kid's bat mitzvah, 22-year-old Andrew looks at Domino and asks himself, "That's a period?" Talking with her later, as she perches her elbows on the counter, he asks her, "What's it like being depressed?" Her tongue blue from a freezepop, Domino delivers an explanation so vague and generic that it could just as well be white text over black-and-white indie-sleaze imagery in Tumblr feeds of yore.
The problem isn't that things work out nicely, or even that the film's dominant attitude is positive and optimistic — the problem is that Andrew expects to be rewarded for his own disposition, and for the most part he is. Wanting to be liked is a normal, human desire; an interest in what makes this desire emerge at a particular insecure time in our lives is fine material for a movie. But this interest is not enough to pass off as sincerity: just as much as a disaffected, cynical blankness can feel disingenuous, so can a wholesale confidence in the power of your own earnestness feel condescending. The audience is asked to take it at face-value, since Andrew's virtue goes unchallenged through the film. I'm often moved by displays of optimistic temerity: I rewatch Jerry Maguire at least once a year. What makes Jerry a good character is that he is constantly challenged on his confidence, and he often loses. The scope of Andrew's obstacles, by comparison, is so easily surpassable that even when they emerge — for example, with Domino's fiance, who gives Andrew a bit of a hard time before thanking him for looking out for his family — they can be easily left behind. Jerry leaps; Andrew steps over.
This is a film unequivocal in its idea of what is good and what is bad, and who embodies each quality — not unlike certain superhero mega-productions that accumulate hundreds of thousands of fans the world over. This blinding clarity is easy bait for a culture that wants to be spoon fed an infantile morality.
The story of the man who struggles to grow up isn't new, and it has been told beautifully and movingly by a variety of artists: John Cassavettes and Judd Apatow both emerge as careful, compassionate students of the manchild. What the protagonist of Funny People shares with the three men at the center of Cassavette's Husbands is embarrassment, however inescapable, of their condition. These are men despite themselves. They're men who are difficult to swallow, difficult to deal with, and whose difficulty becomes everybody else's problem. This is what makes them real — haven't you met a man like that? What makes their observation poignant is that instead of shying away from this difficulty, these artists roll their sleeves up and dig deep into it, seeing where it leads. Husbands in particular is a tough watch, a shitstorm of poor judgment and worse behavior that still manages to hold on to a hope, more urgent after engaging with it than before, that love, courage and generosity make life worth living, no matter how fumbling the attempt.
There's been much talk in contemporary fiction circles, encompassing both literature and film, about the question of goodness, and whether or not it's fair to ask art to give us the answer. The problem, I think, is the expectation that the answer will come this easy — that it'll be convenient to engage with, and tell us what we want to hear by suppressing a deeper, opposing instinct. Good art comes out of that depth, and it's identifiable. Bad art blends into the sameness, washing everything in purple light, and God help us, it's everywhere.
Rafaela Bassili is a critic living in New York.