Cooper Raiff‘s debut film, Shithouse, was a surprisingly warm, Richard Linklater-esque college story, which he directed, wrote, produced, edited, and starred in. Shithouse was one of the best films of 2020, and proved that Raiff was a filmmaker to be reckoned with, who could write and direct characters with honesty and frankness, and that Raiff could lead a film with charm and heart. Raiff’s second film, Cha Cha Real Smooth, continues Raiff’s phenomenal talents as a multi-hyphenate, and shows that he’s one of the most exciting filmmakers to watch.
While Shithouse centered around the college experience, Cha Cha Real Smooth focuses on the post-college uncertainty, as Andrew (Raiff), returns home without any plans for where his future is headed. He takes a crappy job at the mall food court, sleeps on the floor of his little brother David’s (Evan Assante) room, and has to ask his mom (Leslie Mann) and stepdad (Brad Garrett) for rides around town.
When Andrew takes his brother to a lackluster bar mitzvah, he discovers that not only is he a great party starter, but he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), and becomes a part of their lives. Andrew soon becomes a professional bar mitzvah party starter, and starts to realize that maybe his future should involve Domino and Lola.
At one point, Domino calls Andrew the “sweetest person ever,” and Raiff makes it hard not to fall in love with his character. His great sense of humor, affable attitude, and openness make Andrew a delightful character to spend two hours with. From the very beginning of Cha Cha Real Smooth, when we see Andrew as a 12-year-old falling in love with a woman much older than he is, we know that he’s a character full of heart and misdirected affections.
But Andrew is a great counterpoint to Johnson’s Domino. Andrew is all possibility and optimism, while Domino describes herself as having always been depressed. Their chemistry is palpable and wonderful, the type of relationship that one can easily root for, even if the red flags are abundant and everywhere.
Yet in just two films, Raiff has proven that he’s fantastic at presenting characters who are emotionally vulnerable, full of love to give, and endearing even at their worst. Raiff crafts beautiful, layered characters with depth and grace, characters that the audience wants to spend time with, both on the screen and in real life. Raiff even makes Andrew’s inability to do pushups a hilarious montage, and his banter during the bar mitzvahs he works at never gets old.
But Raiff also has a way of cutting through the bullshit of his character’s dynamics. Instead of avoiding a scene of conflict, Raiff – through both his writing and his performance – will head-on attack the heart of a dispute. At times, this can almost be jarring, as we’re so used to characters avoiding this type of confrontation, but through Raiff’s hands, it’s refreshing.
Granted, at times, Cha Cha Real Smooth can get uncomfortably close to the type of feel-good dramedies one expects to come out of Sundance, yet again, Raiff always finds a way to right the ship. Cha Cha Real Smooth is never too saccharine sweet, and never too quirky or charming for its own good. Raiff’s ability to navigate this tonal minefield given the story he’s trying to tell is nothing short of astonishing.
Yet Raiff isn’t making simply a will-they-won’t-they love story between Andrew and Domino. He expands Cha Cha Real Smooth into a larger story about not just going along with what other people want just to make them happy, about discovering who you are, and also about that period in your early 20s when you’re an adult to some, but still a child to others. Like Johnson’s other 2022 Sundance film, AM I OK?, Cha Cha Real Smooth is also a coming-of-age story, as Andrew still doesn’t know exactly who he is yet, while Domino is still coming to grips with what she wants in life.
Between Shithouse and Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff has told stories with love, warmth, and a ridiculous amount of heart. Raiff’s films are honest and open in ways that these types of films rarely are, where we feel compassion for everyone on the screen, and that comes through because of Raiff’s care for these characters. With only two films, Raiff has proven himself to be one of the most exciting filmmakers today, telling stories that are emotionally honest and lived in, without any pretensions and with an unabashed tenderness. Cha Cha Real Smooth isn’t just the best film of Sundance 2022, it’s also a lovely showcase for all of Raiff’s immense talents.