Last week, in the after hours of Paris’ Pigalle neighbourhood, I was sitting at a bar with my close friend. Deep in a drunken conversation about one of my recent romantic failures, she posed an honest question: "You have a lot of love to give so why can’t you find someone who wants to give it back to you?" I don’t think she expected an answer. Truth be told, I didn’t have one to give. Being single in your 20s has its perks but it isn’t exactly the easiest status to navigate, especially if you’re someone who gets into situations with your heart on your sleeve. Singlehood, however, does proffer endless food for thought, most recently for me in Cooper Raiff’s latest film, Cha Cha Real Smooth.
Childhood flashbacks aside (the "Cha Cha Slide" moves we all busted at birthday parties), Raiff’s coming-of-age comedy-drama has a much more serious story than its title implies. Navigating the existential quests of recent college graduate Andrew (Raiff), it delves into differing expectations of life and fulfilment through – per indie film tradition – a romantic entanglement. This arrives with Domino (Dakota Johnson), an engaged mother who Andrew meets at a bar mitzvah party. After striking up a lovely friendship with her neurodiverse daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), Andrew starts to fall for this older woman and viewers are obliged to navigate a collision of emotions – from loving him for his youthful charm and honesty to questioning him for his supposed false assumptions. The latter comes from the film’s finale, when things don’t work out.
Laying out the facts behind Andrew’s love interest, this ending isn’t so surprising but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating in my eyes. Why? Because like a lot of indie cinema, it paints the single person in a sad and foolish light. I’ve watched my fair share of films like Cha Cha Real Smooth and I’ve found that most of them have this in common. Initially, the singleton's endearing qualities are celebrated but once they have been rejected by their love interest, those same qualities are criticised. At the end of Raiff’s film, viewers may be inclined to think: Well, it was his own fault for getting involved with someone who wasn’t available. Why doesn’t criticism fall on the other half here? It’s pretty clear throughout that Domino’s feelings for Andrew are purer than the feelings she has for her fiancé but if she has no intention of pursuing them, why play with passion in the first place?
I’ve come under fire in this kind of situation. Not with someone who was literally unavailable but with men who – as I later found out – were emotionally unavailable, which often results in a similar outcome. I dated a guy for four months when I first moved to Paris – four months of real pleasure – before being ghosted by him without warning. Wonderful experience. After that I was strongly led on by another man. When I communicated my feelings, every expression of feeling he had displayed towards me went out the window. He even advised me to filter my emotions into writing. Ouch (and terribly ironic as I’m writing this now). Any single person in the dating sphere risks ending up in this kind of scenario yet whenever it is shown in indie films, the outcome places us at fault for supposedly choosing the wrong person. Sure, we’re not perfect, but the blame isn’t solely ours. It’s one thing to expect something and another to unfairly tease it.
So this is my problem with narratives of indie cinema. It's there in films like 500 Days of Summer and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. All revolve around single characters who express their emotions and become involved with individuals who, to whatever extent, exploit their transparency. I wonder how many single people watch these films and become influenced to conceal their emotions out of fear of being rejected. This is what saddens me most because there’s no shame in expressing feelings. Actually, I think there’s something quite powerful in it – and guess what? Doing so doesn’t always result in a bad ending like these films suggest. In Cha Cha Real Smooth, my favourite moments are the scenes where Andrew allows himself to be vulnerable and shares his true thoughts because they reveal the purest side of his humanity.
I think Domino admires this in the end. One comment she makes to Andrew during their final encounter has stuck with me. She talks about her daughter and her partner, saying: "For the rest of my life, everything is going to be defined by them." Then she tells Andrew: "You only have you. You can just figure things out and you don’t have to worry about bringing another person into it." Cha Cha Real Smooth may produce its outcome from the complicated circumstances of this woman but her concluding point is a good and simple one, and it says something right about being single. The total independence that singlehood grants is something to enjoy and treasure. I think that’s a smarter point for future indie films to focus on from the start.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is in select cinemas and on Apple TV+ now